Freedom and Safety of Journalists in Azerbaijan and Turkey
OSCE Human Dimension Conference 2022; Plenary Session IV: Fundamental Freedoms
Freedom House is gravely concerned by the increasing trend of attacks and intimidation against journalists in Turkey and Azerbaijan. Over the last year, physical violence, punitive legal measures, smear campaigns, and other forms of harassment have been used to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan and Turkey, including the voices of minority groups. In Turkey, there has been a sharp decline in media freedom under President Erdoğan. Currently, more than 90 percent of Turkey’s media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party.
The first risk to the safety of journalists working in Turkey is the constant threat of judicial proceedings in retaliation for their professional activities. Information collected by Turkish rights-focused civil society organizations shows that journalists are regularly investigated, imprisoned, tried, and convicted for their work. More than 56 journalists are currently imprisoned in Turkey. Between July 2021 and July 2022, at least 318 journalists were tried in Turkey – the majority on terror-related charges. In June, for example, sixteen Kurdish journalists based in Diyarbakır were arrested on terror-related charges without indictment.
Furthermore, between July 2021 and July 2022, more than two dozen journalists were tried for defying the “Law on Meetings and Demonstrations” – indicating that attending and reporting on demonstrations, a necessary part of their work, is increasingly being used as evidence in indictments. During the same period, 82 journalists were tried on charges of either ‘insulting’ a public official or the president, despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling in October 2021 that the relevant Turkish Penal Code Article is incompatible with freedom of expression.
Equally of concern, in May 2022, lawmakers from the ruling AKP party proposed a draft bill expected to pass this autumn to criminalize the spread of disinformation. If passed, this “disinformation law” will introduce prison sentences of up to three years for disseminating misleading information about “the internal and external security of the country, public order, and public health.” The ambiguous definition of “disinformation” and “intent” as well as a highly politicized judiciary deciding on these cases raises credible concerns that the application of the law will be abused to target critical dissent in both traditional and social media. This law would allow the government to impose further restrictions on social media and put millions of Turkish social media users in peril for posting information critical of the government, which in turn would likely lead to even more self-censorship.
In Azerbaijan, freedom of expression and media freedom are under constant pressure. Journalists are consistently harassed to the point where many have fled the country, while independent or opposition media have been shut down or blocked online, with nearly all media outlets controlled by the government. Overall, journalists are working under dire conditions, and independent media portals frequently face blockages. In Azerbaijan, according to a report from the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, in 2022 alone more than 20 politically motivated cases were opened against activists, civil society representatives, bloggers, human rights defenders, and journalists. The targeting of journalists by law-enforcement bodies included detention, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation. A recent report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also noted this worrying trend of suspicious attacks on government critics. In Azerbaijan, journalists are also subjected to surveillance. In July 2021, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) reported that several Azerbaijani journalists were among those targeted with Pegasus spyware, reportedly at the behest of the Azerbaijani government. Ordinary citizens are also victims of government attacks on freedom of expression; Azerbaijan is one of at least 55 countries where government authorities investigated, arrested, or convicted citizens for their social media posts.
Additionally, a new Law on Media in Azerbaijan has introduced limits to collecting information in matters of military, state, and counterterrorism. With this law, which has drawn criticism from the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the government can label journalists as either legitimate or not. Moreover, if a media outlet is found to accept foreign funding or if its director does not meet strict residency requirements, it can be suspended or shut down permanently. Many independent Azeri journalists work from exile and publish their work on social media – actions that could also be targeted under the new law.
Freedom House urges OSCE participating States to hold the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments accountable for failing to ensure freedom of expression and protect journalists and, in several cases, for contributing to the systemic harassment and violence against them. Media freedom is crucial to the democratic ideals of the OSCE mechanism and can only be achieved when journalists can operate in a safe environment without fear of unjust political persecution. Specifically, we urge OSCE participating States and the Council of Europe to:
- In bilateral engagement with the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan, raise concerns about the significant and dangerous lack of media pluralism in both countries and urge them to improve the situation in line with their OSCE commitments.
- Prioritize freedom of expression cases pending at the ECtHR and urge both countries to implement the ECtHR rulings concerning freedom of expression.
Additionally, we call on the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to:
- Closely monitor new measures by Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities that undermine media freedom and journalist safety, as well as Turkey’s draft “disinformation law” described above, and develop recommendations to improve media freedom in both countries.
- Increase efforts to ensure the safety of journalists in Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Freedom House calls on the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey to:
- Refrain from introducing new measures that would further restrict freedom of expression and ensure their commitments to OSCE principles.
- Cease politically motivated persecution of journalists from minority communities (Kurdish journalists in Turkey).
- Ensure that criminal and anti-terror legislation is not applied in a manner that limits or suppresses freedom of expression.