"A manufactured charge of hooliganism"

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklós Haraszti, takes the authorities to task in this STANDARD interview.

The arrest and indictment of two young civil rights activist Adnan Hajizadeh and Emin Milli last week is a familiar pattern, he says in an interview with Markus Bernath: "Critical journalists are accused of criminal acts, which have no connection with their profession and which seem to be manufactured . Haraszti demanded the release of the two journalists.

STANDARD: How do you think about the incident with the two young civil rights activists in Baku and their conviction?

Haraszti: Mr Milli and Mr Hajizadeh are two very young journalists. They belong to Azerbaijan blogger scene. What happened to them has have been confirmed by several witnesses: They were attacked, they reported the attack, but they will now be punished instead of the attacker. They are arrested and are now in custody because of hooliganism.

The problem here is that this is not only unacceptable in itself, but that it is a recurring pattern which seems to be a practice of law enforcement in Azerbaijan. It is eerily similar to what happened to one of the most famous journalists in the country, Ganimat Zakhidow. He is still in prison and is serving a four-year prison sentence. Zakhidow was also accused of hooliganism, he had reported, after he himself had been attacked. And there is another similar case in Azerbaijan: Makhal Ismailoglu, a columnist for the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, was sentenced in the first instance to a two-year prison sentence on probation. He was found guilty of violence towards the cleaning lady of his neighbors, a senior official of the Minister of Interior.

We see here a model in which critical journalists are convicted for crimes which have no connection with their profession and which seem to be fabricated. So I am here and have intervened on Tuesday addressed a letter to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarow.

STANDARD: You have in all cases that you mentioned, filed a protest, but no progress seems to have been achieved

Haraszti: After we intervened several times in cases of criminal slander against journalists, President Ilham Aliyev has publicly acknowledged that defamation is not the European method to punish critical journalists. Azerbaijan is subject to the European Court of Human Rights, not unlike Austria. But now the authorities take other indictments, such as hooliganism, possession of drugs, etc.

One consequence of this type of prosecution is that Azerbaijan still, even after the amnesty in April this year, has the highest rate of imprisoned journalists in the OSCE. There are currently four journalists in prison, mostly due to fabricated accusations.

STANDARD: You know, perhaps the series of videos that Adnan Hajizadeh shot, featuring a donkey, a possible satirical reference to Presidant Ilham Aliyev ...

Haraszti: I will not discuss the contents. I do not care whether there is an donkey or not. It is about critically-minded journalists who are punished for the manufactured charges of hooliganism. I can accept the accusation of defamation only if that is in the subject of the indictment, but it is not.

STANDARD: But one could perhaps argue that Mr. Hajizadeh went beyond the limits of free speech with his videos ?

Haraszti: Within or outside the limits - that is not relevant. The Bloggers are in prison for a physical attack, which was inflicted on them .

STANDARD: What do you expect now from the authorities in Baku?

Haraszti: I expect from them that they act against the law enforcement agencies and make it clear that manufactured accusations are just as bad as indictments against critical or satirical journalists .

STANDARD: What does that mean in the specific case of two young journalists?

Haraszti: We require of course - as always in these cases - a positive end: That the charges be dropped and the real attacker go behind bars, not the victims.

STANDARD: Journalists, working with Internet media have also been under close scrutiny in other countries come. Do you expect that this will happen more frequently now?

Haraszti: Yes, that's a bad trend. The spread of the Internet has in many former Soviet republics reached a level where the governments are becoming aware of these. It has triggered a wave of new regulations that can be regarded as excessive. The ability to put text, images and videos on the Internet and send via mobile phones, makes people who are accustomed to controlling the media nervous. We will continue to defend the principle that the Internet should remain free. (Markus Bernath / derStandard.at, 15.7.2009)

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