Saturday, December 09, 2006

Why Azerbaijan Matters

The nation of Azerbaijan, located in the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Iran, is a case study on the perilous state of free expression in many Muslim nations. On the one hand, a corrupt, dictatorial regime seeks to censor anti-government sentiments. At the same time, the country's Islamists, inspired by neighboring Iran, threaten violence against anyone who criticizes their totalitarian vision of Islam. The Rafik Tagi situation, which I've written about previously, shows how both of these phenomena have come together to threaten intellectual freedom in Azerbaijan.

Earlier this week, Reporters Sans Frontieres spoke out against the growing wave of censorship undertaken by the Azeri regime. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) provides the details:

In an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev, the Paris-based media rights group criticized the evictions last month of three media outlets -- the independent Turan news agency, and the opposition "Azadliq" and "Bizim Yol" newspapers -- from their Baku offices.

The group also criticized the authorities' October decision to revoke the license of the independent television station ANS, which was retransmitting BBC, RFE/RL, and Voice of America broadcasts.

The letter says such acts show that Azerbaijani "authorities are taking a harder line on free expression and press freedom." It also said that the "independent, opposition and, foreign media are being systematically targeted."

It calls on Aliyev to "intervene to ensure that press freedom is respected in Azerbaijan," and warns that any restrictions could affect the 2008 presidential election.

The full text of the letter is available at the RSF web site. This article from the IWPR offers more information on the closure of the ANS television station.

Why does the situation in Azerbaijan matter? It matters because the violent censorship of the Islamists feeds off of the climate of censorship created by the Azeri regime. The willingness of the state to crackdown on dissenting opinions only encourages the Islamists to expand their efforts to do the same. It also creates a cycle of censorship where, as with Rafik Tagi, the regime itself acts against those who offend the Islamists in order to placate the latter. This leads to a situation where liberal or reformist voices have a hard time being heard, and the Islamists become by default the only viable alternative to the status quo. This has been the pattern in much of the Muslim world.


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