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The Perks of Being a Journalist in Azerbaijan

Presidential initiative to hand out free flats to media professionals, praise them for being “helpers” appears at odds with the country’s lack of press freedom.  

24 July 2017

It’s good be a journalist in Azerbaijan, at least in some cases. The government previously announced that it would give away 255 apartments, complete with high-speed Wi-Fi, to celebrate National Press Day this past Saturday, the BBC reports, citing the Xalq Qazeti newspaper.

 

The celebration marks the establishment of the first newspaper in Azerbaijan, Akinci, in 1875.

 

Journalists are eligible as long as they don’t own property and neither do their spouses or children, writes OC Media. The nominations come from media agencies, who can propose journalists who have worked for them for at least three years, and who have at least ten years of experience working in the media. The presidential administration has the final say regarding who gets an apartment.

 

In 2002, a statistical report from the Trade Union of Journalists found that 85 percent of the journalists in the country did not own an apartment. The trade union brought the topic to the government, which later used $13 million from the state budget to build flats for journalists, Mushfig Alasgarli, head of the Trade Union of Journalists and deputy head of the Press Council, told OC Media.

 

“Professional journalists leave the sector as they cannot buy their own flats and receive low incomes; they shift their occupation in order to be able to buy flats, which in turn impacts the quality of the media negatively,” Alasgarli said.

 

At present, a one-room flat in Baku's suburbs costs, on average, 84,300 manat ($50,000), whereas the average monthly salary is about 500 manat ($297).

 

Some journalists are not impressed by the freebies from the government, saying that it is just another way of smothering press freedom in Azerbaijan, which annually ranks toward the bottom of various international rankings.  

 

“It is done to silence journalists. How can a journalist who received a flat from the state criticize their ineffective politics?” Aytan Farhadova, a freelance reporter, told OC Media.

 

When the first 156 apartments were distributed in 2013, most of the homeowners were pro-government journalists and few were from the opposition, EurasiaNet.org reports.

 

Prominent investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova (pictured) praised the journalists who “overcame their yearnings and did not receive flats as a bribe,” RFE/RL writes. Ismayilova herself spent time in prison on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges after reporting on corruption and money laundering of the ruling Aliev family and other high-ranking government officials.

 

At a ceremony to inaugurate the flats, President Ilham Aliev seemed to imply that the country’s supposedly free media acted as a watchdog on the government, countering press freedom critics who have described a cowered profession fearful of any “unsanctioned” criticism, especially of the ruling family.

"Officials ... know that freedom of speech and media will not allow them to have any shortcomings in their work. That is why journalists are my helpers,” the president said, according to the BBC.

 

 

  • Azerbaijan’s parliament passed a law last year to criminalize online defamation of the president. Offenders could pay up to $860 and face sentences of up to three years in prison, Reuters reports.

 

  • A Russian-Israeli blogger was sentenced to prison for three years after illegally entering Armenian-controlled Nagorno Karabakh, which is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. He also criticized the Azeri president in a blog post.

 

  • Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 162 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index 2017. 

Compiled by Crystal Tai

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