Media Freedom Group Assembles in Azerbaijan

Baku — More than 50 participants from almost every continent on the globe gathered for the 11th General Assembly of International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which has been being held at Crescent Beach since last Sunday.

Azer Hasret, head of Azerbaijan’s Journalists’ Trade Union, which hosted the conference, said that the congress is the very first media meeting ever held in Baku. According to Hasret, it was decided in 2001, at the IFEX’s 9th General Assembly in Bangkok to assemble the 11th annual meeting in Baku. The decision was made by Azerbaijan’s Journalists’ Trade Union, which is one of the three CIS members from IFEX.

Canada-based IFEX is a world network of 57 organizations that campaign for greater media rights and free expression. It was established to help protect free media in many countries that suffer from restrictions on free expression and attacks on individual journalists.

Gathering at its annual meeting in Baku, IFEX discussed its organizational problems as well as welcomed eight more members to their network. But their main focus was on the media and free expression problems in the regions they incorporate.

While talking about the increasing problems of journalists in the CIS, panelists highlighted the conditions of two journalists that have been forced to reject IFEX’s invitation to attend the conference. According to Ann Kuper, head of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), one of these journalists is Azeri journalist Irada Huseynova, who has been living in exile in Moscow, because the Azeri government wants to arrest her for criminal defamation, simply for doing her job of exposing official corruption. The charges against her were politically motivated, but as of several days ago, the government was still refusing to drop them, in order to allow Huseynova to participate in the meeting.

Grigory Pasko, a Russian journalist who spent more than two years in prison for exposing dangerous environmental damage caused by the Russian Navy’s dumping of nuclear waste, was also unable to attend. The Federal Security Service of Russia refused to approve Pasko’s departure.

On the discussion panel dedicated to the post 9/11, anti-terrorism laws and other challenges, Boonrat Apichattrisorn, vice-president of the Thai Journalists’ Association, described how the situation was fuelled in the Thai Muslim community after the government in Thailand passed an emergency decree on anti-terrorism and money laundering with immediate effect. She explained that while the Thai government urged that the new laws were necessary to combat terrorism, the Thai Muslim community in three Southern provinces staged a rally criticizing these laws as being undemocratic and aimed at them.

According to Apichattrisorn, the Muslim religious teachers warned that the laws would have an adverse affect on their confidence and trust because they granted powers to local authorities to issue arrest warrants and question suspected terrorists.

“The governments throughout Southeast Asia attempted to co-opt the media to ensure that they tow their lines, by helping fanning up nationalist sentiment. As a result, who were critical of the governments and authorities were considered unpatriotic” Apichattrisorn said.

She also added that Thailand’s government has successfully made a systematic attempt to control the news through political and economic interference. As a result, the media organizations in Thailand have come up with several campaigns to protest against this intervention and have called for media reform.

The panelist from Thailand proposed measures for overcoming the future challenges for all media in coping with restrictions imposed by governments in the light of the anti-terrorism drive.

“Media should provide an independent channel for information to forge a public understanding that terrorism does not necessarily derive from fundamental religious belief, as governments tried to professed” she stressed.

Speakers on the panel discussed journalism safety and particularly the death of journalists around the world, who have died while working. Ann Kuper, from the CPJ, provided participants with detailed statistics about journalists’ deaths during the last decade.

According to these statistics, 347 journalists have been killed during the last decade while carrying out their work. CPJ research demonstrates that the vast majority of journalists killed since 1994 did not die in cross fire; they were hunted down and murdered, often in direct reprisal of their reporting.

According to CPJ only 55 journalists died in cross-fire, while 264 were murdered in reprisal of their reporting.

Photographing and recording combat are the most dangerous assignments in journalism, believe CPJ, because during the last decade 51 cameramen, photographers and soundmen have been killed. The most deadly country for journalists during last decade was Algeria, where 51 local journalists have been killed since 1994.

Since 1994, CPJ has recorded only 26 cases in which the person or persons who ordered a journalist’s murder have been arrested and prosecuted.

“That means that in more that 90 percent of the cases, those who murder journalists do so with impunity” Kuper added.

A lot of interesting conversations came from the other participants while enjoying evening events. As the foreign participants were given a chance by local organizers to get acquainted with the everyday social life of Azerbaijani families, many shared the political and social situation of their own countries, helping to raise better international awareness on a more personal level.

Internatonal Freedom of Expression Exchange, 22 June 2004

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