As in previous years, independent media outlets in Azerbaijan continue to operate under challenging conditions. Severe obstacles faced by independent media organisations that cover human rights, corruption, politics, social problems and so on force them to seek external financial support or to engage in volunteer activities. When these media outlets attract the attention of a broad audience, they are either blocked or subjected to various acts of intimidation; therefore, such media resources try to break through the information blockade by alternating social media channels.
in the Directory
In 2022, Azerbaijan ranked 154th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index and was listed among countries where the media is not free. In September 2022, the arrest of Avaz Zeynalli, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Khural media organisation – which is known as an independent media organisation and has access to a broad audience – on charges of bribery was seen by international observers as another attempt to stifle free speech in the country. Apart from Avaz Zeynalli, Polad Aslanov, the founder of xeberman.com, and blogger Eyvaz Yahyaoglu are still in prison for their professional activities.
In Azerbaijan, there used to be some freedom in the matter of the internet, albeit relatively so. From time to time, the government can restrict social media channels. For example, during the 44-day war with Armenia in 2020 and subsequent small-scale military clashes, major social media channels were banned in the country. This was seen by international observers as preventing the population from accessing alternative sources of information during military operations.
In addition, local and international observers believe that the country’s new media law, adopted in 2022, may have a severe negative impact on the activities of media broadcast over the internet, and may result in censorship. Media analyst Alasgar Mammadli considers that the new law’s goal is to reduce the sphere of influence of local online media, which is replacing independent traditional media and which is more pluralistic. According to Mammadli, the new law aims to “virtually silence” knowledgeable individuals and resources altogether.
Market structure and dominance
In Azerbaijan’s media legislation, the media is divided into four categories encompassing the public and private sectors: audiovisual media, online media, print media and information agencies. All types of media have been under strict state control for years in Azerbaijan. However, especially after 2014 and the ramping up of attacks on non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets, media resources such as Meydan TV, Azadliq.org, Abzas.net and so on have faced severe intimidation and been blocked in the country.
How media is funded
Due to the current media environment, advertisers are not interested in placing ads in independent or relatively independent media resources. On the other hand, government or pro-government media organisations receive large-scale donations through various administrative means. For example, the government has a tradition of distributing free housing to loyal journalists. Also, the state periodically provides official financial assistance to pro-government media outlets. In return, there are allegations that state authorities instruct these media organisations on the daily information agenda of the country.
Twelve profiles of digital native media organisations from Azerbaijan are included in the directory. The most important conclusion from this research is that, in a local context, a media organisation cannot publicise topics of interest to society such as human rights, politics and corruption, and achieve commercial success. If a media outlet wants to reach a large audience and provide a professional service, it has to seek grant support outside the country. If it can do this, its internet activities are restricted within the country.
For example, Habib Muntazir, the co-founder of Meydan TV, says the organisation is trying to provide Azerbaijani society with transparent information. “But due to regular bans, the website’s accessibility for Azerbaijani readers decreases,” he says. “We created a mirror website to avoid the block placed on Meydan TV, but it was also blocked recently. As a result, there is a sharp decrease in the audience.”
A similar incident happened with the organisation Abzas Media. Ulvi Hasanli, the organisation’s co-founder, says that one of the main impetuses in establishing Abzas Media was that in 2014, there were attacks on independent media in Azerbaijan, as a result of which many media outlets were disabled. In light of this, a group of journalists decided to create a new media outlet to fill the void and provide alternative news. They intended to highlight human rights violations, corruption cases and social problems. However, as soon as the media outlet became popular, it faced severe difficulties. Its website was blocked, and Hasanli was sent for compulsory military service.
After Hasanli returned to civilian life in 2018, he discovered that “the media outlet operated only through proxy links, and its audience had decreased by ten times”. Abzas Media’s main web domain is unavailable in Azerbaijan, and the staff use another web domain to avoid restrictions.
Blocking of independent media resources, frequent hacker attacks and harassment of employees create significant obstacles to independent media organisations in Azerbaijan. Such media outlets attach great importance to social media, to be accessible to the local audience. It is no coincidence that the social media pages of these media outlets are several times more popular than those of traditional outlets. One reason for their increasing popularity is their use of innovative methods.
Since the fall of the USSR, Azerbaijan has been an independent country for more than 30 years. But during this time, an independent media industry has not been institutionalised. Although there have been many brilliant initiatives, efforts have been made to destroy them. The inability of the press to operate independently is a significant obstacle to the country’s democratisation process. Many experts cite the maintenance of bans imposed on alternative media outlets, and the emergence of legislative initiatives such as the country’s new media law, as signs that the government desires to maintain the status quo in the local media sector for a long time.
Last updated: January 2023