An Open Letter to Azer Hasret

Central Asian & Southern Caucasian Freedom of Expression Network
Baku, Azerbaijan

Dear Azer, 

I read your open letter to Peter Preston this week with interest. As you will remember Azer, our personal connection goes back many years to our first meeting at a gathering of the IFEX network of Freedom of Expression groups, of which we were both active members at the time.

I also recall a very pleasurable visit to Baku for the IFEX General Meeting in 2004, hosted with your support. At that meeting we began the work that resulted in the founding of the Tunisian Monitoring Group, which I later chaired, and by the outbreak of the Arab Spring had become the largest and most diverse freedom of expression campaign anywhere in the Middle East.

More recently things have not gone so well between IFEX and Azerbaijan. IFEX had its website sabotaged in an attempt to limit the impact of human rights campaigners during the European Games in Baku. Indeed since 2004, IFEX and your organisation have taken very different paths to defending the rights of journalists to work fairly and ethically without interference or threat.

That is my wish for all Azerbaijani journalists, a wish that is shared with IFEX, and I think at heart, by you as well.

I recognise your frustration with the Guardian’s coverage of freedom of expression rights abuses in Azerbaijan, but I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of it as serving the interests of “some dark circles”.

As was the case in Tunisia in 2004, Azerbaijan has a long and credible record in education, women’s rights and secular community relations. But, again as with Tunisia at the time, advances in one quarter were not matched by similar progress in freedom of expression rights.

As a result the current regime has found its positive side out-shadowed by the negativity that surrounds its record of censorship, intimidation and injustice.

The answer to this, as distressing as it seems to be to the Aliyev government, is not to shout more loudly about the good, but to try to put the bad right as well.

As you know we believe, journalists are the watchdogs, not the cheerleaders of society, and are expected to challenge states that undermine established international legal standards of freedom of expression.

This is why I am concerned with the implications for free speech posed by planned media regulation in Britain, the threat to privacy and free expression posed by British surveillance organisations, the corporate power of the web giants in England, Britain’s historic record in Iraq and Afghanistan and the importance of exposing past state criminality, such as British Intelligence’s collusion with terrorists in Northern Ireland.

You will not agree with them, but a series of established journalists, academics, parliamentarians and not least, the European Court of Human Rights have looked closely at the state of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan and found it severely wanting.

I would agree, and like all my colleagues, we urge the Azerbaijani authorities to release the jailed reporters and human rights activists it currently detains and to take the steps required of it by the EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and European Court to bring its freedom of expression record up to international standards.

No country is above bad business, including Azerbaijan, and cannot be treated as if it is. If you were to come to England, to cover sports or politics, invited or not by the government, I would strongly oppose any effort to limit your freedom to report what you like, how you like. Not all of it will be favourable – as I have said, the UK still has many improprieties of its own to answer for.

As for Azerbaijan, plenty of fine words and celebratory images have been produced in support of the Games and Azerbaijan, the work of eminences like Tony Blair and a string of British corporate sports and public event experts.

Azerbaijan is strong enough to endure some criticism alongside all the other fine words and pictures, even criticism you think unfair. It is simply free expression.

With friendly regards,
Rohan Jayasekera


Screenshot from Rohan`s blog

Screenshot from Rohan`s blog

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