A media bill presented to Azerbaijan’s parliament has been criticized by some journalists who warn that it could restrict their ability to work independently.
The About the Media bill was introduced in parliament on December 10. It is scheduled for a third and final hearing in the coming weeks, after which President Ilham Aliyev is likely to sign it into law.
The proposed bill includes measures such as the establishment of a centralized media registry, licensing of online TV and accreditation of journalists. Other provisions focus on reporting on religious extremism or under martial or emergency law.
Critics say the proposal would give the government leverage over determining who works as a journalist, and that regulating online TV — a medium that has gained popularity because of restrictions on more traditional broadcasting — could undermine the free flow of information.
Concerns were also raised that clauses on martial law and religious extremism could further expand the government’s powers to interfere with content.
The bill stems from a decree that the president signed in January “on deepening media reforms.”
Natiq Javadli, a journalist who works for Berlin-based Meydan TV, believes the law would introduce new restrictions on journalists.
“We are not going to be able to independently call government officials and receive response, because we will be asked if we have been registered as journalists, or not,” Javadli said.
Media expert Alasgar Mammadli told VOA the bill does not appear to have taken into account public opinion or international input.
“This bill envisages the regulation of all journalists in a singular manner, particularly when it comes to their accreditation and the licensing of internet TV. These seriously contravene international legal norms,” Mammadli said.
Media watchdogs and analysts in Azerbaijan say the proposed bill has not been approved by the Venice Commission — the Council of Europe’s independent advisory body that looks at constitutional matters — or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s media body, both of which Baku is supposed to collaborate with.
Analysts also say the draft bill may contravene protections for freedom of expression in the Azerbaijan Constitution.
Parliamentarian Fazil Mustafa rejected the idea that the draft bill would amount to censorship. He said that many provisions, including for the centralized registry and journalist licensing, are not obligatory.
“(The) media registry is voluntary. Those who register are considered journalists, as are those who do not. Simply, those who register may find it beneficial,” Mustafa told VOA, adding that it could help in “utilizing certain privileges.”
Mustafa said the licensing of online television was necessary “because journalists, any media outlets, cannot function outside the legal framework.”
Baku’s Media Development Agency, which played a significant role in the preparation of the bill, has said that it corresponds with international norms.
Mushfig Alasgarli, head of the Journalists Trade Union of Azerbaijan, was also more optimistic. He said he believes the bill will clarify some of the issues around regulation of online media and said that it recognizes “the rights of freelance journalists.”
“They exist de-facto and they work. Until now, their status has not been recognized in the legal sphere,” he said.
Establishing a media registry could remedy the haphazard ways in which media outlets have been registered by the Justice Ministry until now, Alasgarli added.
Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova disagreed, saying it will be nearly impossible for freelancers to work if they are not considered journalists under the law.
“There is a provision that requires a special registry for journalism and if you are not in registry, then you are not a journalist,” Ismayilova said.
In her view, the law will, in effect, place journalism under direct state control.
She also raised concerns about the draft bill’s language regarding reporting on law enforcement operations against extremism or terrorism.
The award-winning journalist has previously been imprisoned in what rights groups say was retaliation for her coverage of corruption. Ismayilova, who worked for the Azeri service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was arrested in 2014 and spent over 530 days in prison on charges of libel, tax evasion and illegal business activities.
RFE/RL is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also oversees VOA.
Ismayilova said that rather than helping independent journalists, the new law seeks to convert reporters into government spokespersons, because authorities will be able to define who is or is not a journalist.
Azerbaijan has a poor media freedom record, ranking 167 out of 180 countries where 1 is freest, according to Reporters Without Borders. The watchdog said that journalists “are jailed on absurd grounds if they do not first yield to harassment, blackmail or bribes,” and that access to several news websites is blocked.
As of December 1, two journalists were in prison on what the press freedom organization the Committee to Protect Journalists says are charges in retaliation for their work.
This story originated in VOA’s Azeri Service. Asgar Asgarov contributed to this report.