Azerbaijan's lack of media freedoms under fire

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An attack on a group of journalists in Azerbaijan at a demolition site has drawn widespread international condemnation and is serving as a bitter reminder of the bleak conditions for media in this former Soviet nation.

Colleagues of award-winning reporter Idrak Abbasov say he was savagely beaten Wednesday by a large group of police officers and security guards for the state energy company while he was filming the controversial wrecking of houses near oil deposits. Other journalists were also reportedly attacked at the site.

The incident is casting a dark shadow over the government's hopes of showcasing the oil-rich country when it hosts the glitzy Eurovision song contest next month.

Amnesty International, one of a raft of rights organizations demanding an investigation into the attack, said it was shocked.

"One would have thought that with the Eurovision just around the corner and images from Baku about to be beamed around the world, the authorities would be on their best behavior," John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director, said Thursday in a statement.

Other groups — including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists — have also issued sharply worded statements.

Abbasov, who last month won the journalism award from the Index on Censorship, is only the latest journalist to fall foul of intimidation and physical aggression in Azerbaijan, where dissent against the overbearing rule of President Ilkham Aliyev is not tolerated.

"Azerbaijan has a history of unpunished attacks on critical journalists. Independent journalists, human rights defenders and others seeking to express their opinions ... or criticize government authorities have been attacked, harassed, threatened and imprisoned." New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Aliyev came to power in 2003 in what was in effect a dynastic succession to his late father, Heydar, a Politburo member and senior KGB officer in the Soviet period.

Azerbaijan has stubbornly resisted any impulses to implement democratic reform, and with its vast energy wealth, few in the West are racing to apply pressure.

Aliyev rejects suggestions that media freedoms are limited in his mainly Muslim nation of 9 million people wedged between Iran and Russia.

Evidence presented by Khalid Aqaliyev, program coordinator at Azerbaijan's Media Rights Institute, suggests otherwise.

"Since the start of the year, 30 journalists in the country have been subjected to physical aggression while fulfilling their professional duties," Aqaliyev said.

Aqaliyev said six journalists are currently serving jail sentences on charges ranging from public order violations to blackmail.

"The lawyers and relatives of those jailed believe the accusations are trumped up and that the real reason for the arrest was their professional activity," he said.

In other cases, like that of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani Service correspondent Khadija Ismayilova, journalists have been targeted in a more insidious fashion.

Unidentified individuals in March leaked sex tapes of Ismayilova onto the Internet in what she said was blackmail designed to shame her into refraining from probing into corruption. The footage was filmed on hidden cameras planted inside Ismayilova's apartment.

Azerbaijan earned the right to host the Eurovision song contest by winning the competition last year.

Dalhuisen of Amnesty said this attention may be leading Azerbaijani authorities to aggressively quash negative coverage and urged competition organizers to act.

"Azerbaijan must respect media freedom — and the song contest's co-organizers, the European Broadcasting Union, must come swiftly to the defense of journalists," he said in Amnesty's statement.