By Seymur Kazimov - Caucasus
Azerbaijan's largest pro-opposition newspaper, Azadliq, is on the brink of closure after being given ten days to pay the equivalent of 31,000 US dollars in outstanding bills.
Azadliq's editor, Rahim Hajiyev, said the 25,000-manat debts included 11,000 for electricity, power, heating and other utility bills, while the rest was owed to the state-owned printers.
Hajiyev said the decision to demand urgent payment was politically driven. He noted that a series of recent decisions by the government had already pushed his newspaper close to the edge.
"In 2011, street trading was banned in Baku, including selling newspapers. Ali Hasanov, who heads the political department in the presidential administration, justified this by saying it interfered with pedestrians and traffic," Hajiyev told IWPR.
He said the paper's income had also been hit by the closure of the state-owned Gasid chain of kiosks, where it used to be sold. He said the retailer still owed his newspaper 28,000 manats, enough to pay off its the debts.
"We still haven't received the money due for papers sold between May and August," he said. "I believe all this is being done to destroy the publishing system in this country."
The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety noted that Azadliq had already been forced to pay large fines after defamation lawsuits, including 30,000 manats to Tagi Ahmadov, head of the Baku Metro, and 4,000 manats to Anar Mammadov, son of the transport minister.
Azadliq staff say their reporting ventures where other newspapers dare not go.
"We write about corruption issues concerning the present government. It controls most of the media, but it hasn't been able to touch Azadliq," editor Rovshan Hajibayli said.
Other opposition-leaning papers are also vulnerable because of money they owe to the state-run publishing company, and the collapse of the retail network.
"We owe the publishing company more than 8,000 manats, and Gasid owes us 18,000, which we're unable to get so as to pay off our debts," Rauf Arifogli, editor in chief of Yeni Musavat, said. "We face constant pressures - court proceedings, insults and arrests. But it didn't used to be direct interference. Now a mechanism has been put in place that we aren't strong enough to resist."
The Gasid kiosk chain is headed by Mirkazim Kazimov, a member of parliament from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party. He confirmed that his company owed the newspapers money, but denied there was anything unusual about that.
He rejected suggestions that Gasid shut down its outlets on orders from the president's office, and said they were actually closed by local government on the grounds that they were no longer fit for use.
"We don't have the money to replace the old kiosks with new ones. Since our shares belong to the state, we can't take out a loan to replace them," he said. "Newspapers are sold in shops, not just in kiosks. We have no links to the presidential administration; we're bound only by our contracts."
Since 2009, the government has issued funding to newspapers from the State Fund for the Support of the Media, but media rights activists say this does not make up for what opposition papers lose.
The Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, IRFS, which campaigns for a free press in Azerbaijan, said opposition papers faced an effective advertising boycott, which reduced their income.
"IRFS urges the Azerbaijani government to end the pressure on the opposition and independent media and calls on public officials to be tolerant of alternative opinions and criticism," it said in a statement.
Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.
The article is published by the the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (iwpr.net)