654th Meeting of the Permanent CouncilThe European Union considers media independence and pluralism as fundamental to any functioning democracy and free society. We have, therefore, noted with concern the Background Report on the Media situation in Azerbaijan, issued on 6 February by the OSCE Office in Baku, and recent statements by the Representative on Freedom of the Media, Mr. Haraszti, highlighting a negative trend of the media situation in the country.
We recognize that there have been some positive developments, such as the pardoning last October of two editors who were serving one-year sentences for defamation and insult against public figures. We are, however, concerned by the sentencing, on 30 January, by the Narimanov District Court, of Mr. Faramaz Novruzoglu, journalist, and Mr. Sardar Alibeyli, editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Nota Bene, to two years imprisonment and 18 months corrective labour, respectively, on charges of libel in a suit filed by the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Chairman of the State Committee on Diaspora issues. The EU is also following closely developments in the case of Eynulla Fatullayev.
There is a concern that criminal defamation suits initiated by public officials are being used in order to limit media freedom. The EU is convinced that a strong commitment is needed on the part of the authorities to protecting journalists both from intimidation through libel suits and from violent threats. Abuses committed against journalists must be investigated and appropriate action taken against the perpetrators. In this context, we again call on the competent authorities to do their utmost to bring to justice the perpetrators of the murderers of Elmar Huseynov on 2nd March 2005 and to provide the public with information on progress in investigations.
The EU is concerned about the fate of imprisoned media workers, and hopes for positive developments, in particular the pardoning of Mirza Sakit Zahidov and the dropping of charges against Rafiq Tagi and Samir Sedagetoglu, who are in pre-trial detention.
We are also closely monitoring developments following the shutdown, though temporarily eased, of ANS, the most-watched Azerbaijani independent broadcasting channel, and of the eviction of the opposition newspaper Azadlig and other media organizations and NGOs from a state-owned building that they had been occupying for many years. We expect the National Television and Radio Council of Azerbaijan (NTRC) to consider applications for frequencies in a transparent and fair manner during the upcoming tender in March.
We once again call upon the Government of Azerbaijan to create an environment where the media can work freely, effectively and without fear, thus implementing the relevant provisions of the European Neighbourhood Action Plan, the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and respecting other international obligations and commitments including those undertaken within the framework of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. The EU stands ready to assist Azerbaijan in developing the necessary preconditions for this. We are confident that Azerbaijan will take up the offer of the Representative on Freedom of the Media to assist in reforming legislation on defamation, bringing legal practice relevant to the media and freedom of expression into line with international standards and best practices.
The Candidate Countries Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*, the Countries of the Stabilisation and Association Process and potential candidates Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia, as well as EFTA countries Iceland and Norway, members of the European Economic Area, align themselves with this statement.
* Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia continue to be part of the Stabilisation and Association Process.