Azerbaijan bans foreign broadcasts while preparing for a constitutional referendum

In the last days of 2008, Azerbaijan’s
National Council for Television and Radio has banned international radio
stations from broadcasting on national frequencies
. The decision went
effective on the 1st of January removing three radio stations from
FM band – VOA, BBC and Azadliq (“Liberty”), RFE/RL’s Azeri service. With
another decision, Parliament
of Azerbaijan approved a referendum
to be held early next year to remove
the time limit on presidential terms. Currently a person can be elected to the
office of the President of Azerbaijan only twice, whereas ruling party wants
the country to hold a referendum to eliminate any such limits to open the way
for the possible re-election of the incumbent president, Ilham Aliyev.

In a country with a tight government control over media, the
ban on the international radio stations were seen by some as an attack on the
last remnants of free speech. Particularly, the ban of Azadliq met a protest
from politically active segments of the society. Mammad Suleymanov,
a left-wing columnist from local Bizim
, called Azadliq “the last Bastille of free speech [in
Azerbaijan]” and added that the government took this Bastille very easily.
According to him “everyone starting from taxi drivers to housewives were
listening to Azadliq and only this was enough argument for closing it”.

International reactions (mostly of regret and condemnation)
to this move of the Azeri government continue to arrive and Azerbaijan
International keeps a good record of them
. Azerbaijan International also
published the letter of one Azadliq
journalist describing the last minutes of the radio. Azadliq completed its programs on FM band with overture
from Koroglu
, the most patriotic
and the most beloved Azeri opera composed by Uzeyir Hajibekov. While
Sözün Düzü posted a video from YouTube,
where a group of Azeri youth was filmed marking New Year together with those
last minutes of Azadliq. One of the youth
interviewed in the video says that he had come to share the grief of Azadliq,
while other comments that “they can close Azadliq (“Liberty”), but Liberty will
surely come to this country.”

Rasa writes
that “they silence the alternative voices” and asks “Why now?”
Then he gives three hypothetical answers to his question: (a) either the
government “prepares to sign a capitulatory peace on Nagorno-Karabakh”; (b) or
they “want to hold the referendum without any troubles”, or (c) “as the price
of oil fell four times, the economy is in a bad condition, therefore government
tries to prevent any possible awakening in minds”.

With three international radios silenced on national
frequencies, the country heads for a nationwide referendum to decide whether to
lift constitutional obstacles to re-election of someone for the office of the
President more than two times. With the parliamentary proposal made
on the 19th of December
, Constitutional Court’s approval five
days later, and the decision of the Parliament made
on 26th of December
, the whole procedure took only seven days,
and the referendum is set for March 18, 2009.

Meanwhile, Ali Hasanov, head of the
Socio-Political Department of the Presidential Administration, expressed his
that this move of Azerbaijani government is interpreted as banning
the broadcast of these radios in Azerbaijan. According to his words, “it won’t
be difficult for a listener to switch from FM band to short waves, and those
who want will listen to these radios in any case.” The only reason behind this
move was the laws of Azerbaijan which states that national frequencies can be
operated only by national companies and Azerbaijani citizens, Ali Hasanov told
to, main Russian-language Internet news
portal of Azerbaijan.