WASHINGTON -- As Azerbaijani citizens head to the polls to vote in a snap presidential election on April 11, the Azerbaijani Service website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) remains under a government ban.
“Our job is to provide independent news coverage for the people of Azerbaijan – not least in connection with such important events as presidential elections,” said RFE/RL President Thomas Kent. “This ban obstructs our mission, deprives Azerbaijanis of their fundamental right to access information freely, and violates the government’s international obligations to respect the role of a free press.”
In a scathing April 6 statement that referred to the ban and other attacks on the country's independent media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Azerbaijan's authorities had cleansed the political landscape of "virtually all formal avenues of expressing dissent" ahead of the election.
The ban dates from May 2017, when a Baku district court approved a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technology to block access to the Azerbaijani Service’s website, known locally as Radio Azadliq, together with the websites of the nongovernmental Azadliq newspaper, Meydan TV, and the online Turan TV and Azerbaycan Saati TV channels. It followed an earlier order by the Prosecutor General’s office that blocked the sites, claiming they “pose a threat” to Azerbaijan’s national security” and promote “violence, hatred, or extremism, violate privacy, or constitute slander."
Prior to the Prosecutor General’s order, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service had, together with the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, reported on financial activities linked to members of the president’s family and close associates. It had also investigated costs associated with the September 2016 referendum that extended the term of the presidency from five to seven years, and created the post of Vice President, to which President Ilham Aliyev has since appointed his wife.
RFE/RL’s English-language website has been periodically blocked in Azerbaijan since January 2018.
Azerbaijani authorities raided and sealed the Baku bureau of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service in December 2014, alleging tax violations and financial abuses that were overturned in court for lack of evidence in a case that RFE/RL has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
Despite the closure, the service continues to function as an essential source for news, deploying local reporting networks and a vigorous digital strategy to inform and connect with an online and satellite audience that numbers in the millions. In 2017, the service earned nearly 90 million video views on its YouTube and Facebook channels, and maintains an active presence on Instagram, Twitter, and Odnoklassniki.