Criminalisation of journalists and activists on the rise, media freedoms under attack
In an attempt to silence critics, the government increased pressure on human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists ahead of the constitutional referendum scheduled for 26th September. If passed, changes proposed in the referendum would increase the presidential term of office from 5 to 7 years and strengthen the powers of the head of state. On 13th August, authorities arrested Elgiz Gahraman, an activist from NIDA, a youth opposition movement active on social media. Gahraman was subsequently charged with drug possession and sentenced to four months' pre-trial detention. On 15th August, two youth activists from the REAL movement Elshan Gasimov and Togrul Ismayilov were arrested and sentenced to seven days of administrative detention. Authorities also harassed civic activist and former political prisoner Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, calling him in for questioning on charges of “minor hooliganism”.
Several journalists' petitions to have travel bans lifted were rejected by the courts. On 8th August, the Baku Court of Appeals dismissed Sevinj Vaqifqizi's request. Vaqifqizi had been detained for one day in 2015 and then brought to the Head Department against Organized Crime. An appeal to lift the travel ban against Khadija Ismayilova, who was released from prison on 25th May, was denied on 15th August.
The attempted coup in Turkey on 15th July and the subsequent crackdown on civil society also affected the media in Azerbaijan. As the Turkish television station Barış TV was shut down by decree, Azerbaijan Saatı, a program carried by that media outlet, stopped broadcasting. On 8th August, Türksat satellite stopped transmission of Radio Free Europe’s programme Azadlıq (“Freedom”) A-LIVE without explanation.