Due to years of economic and political pressure from Azerbaijan’s print media, online news outlets are filling the gap.
Media analysts in Azerbaijan say that the country’s print media has almost disappeared, but the country is seeing an increase in online media.
Media rights expert and lawyer Alasgar Mamdali said the newspaper’s decline is the biggest loss to the Azerbaijani media in more than a decade.
“Newspapers in Azerbaijan were once very powerful as well as a serious alternative source of news. In this sense, it is a serious loss,” he told VOA.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, “All print newspapers with critical stance have been closed.” The media watchdog has ranked Azerbaijan 154 out of 180 countries as the 1st most free in the World Press Freedom Index.
The country’s papers are bent for a variety of reasons, with analysts saying officials use the courts or pressure independent news outlets to withhold state financial aid or public funds.
The government of Azerbaijan, however, disputes claims that the media comes under political pressure or persecution.
“There is no problem from the government side. Media is a business entity. The government gives tax incentives,” a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Media Development Agency told VOA.
The government agency oversees press accreditation and licensing, and has the power to issue warnings and file lawsuits against media outlets that violate the laws.
Baku-based freelancer Kamran Mahmudov told VOA that Azerbaijan’s newspaper industry faces many problems ranging from lack of funds to lack of independence. He added that only a few newspapers are still published, and they belong to the ruling party or people close to the government.
“They try to pretend that they are publishing newspapers,” Mahmudov said. “But nobody needs those newspapers. These newspapers don’t have efficiency and fairness. Nobody trusts them.”
Ulvi Hasanli, co-founder and editor of the independent news website Abjas, said he believed independent print media collapsed largely because of political pressure.
“The government destroyed them through administrative resources and the courts. At present, there are few newspapers published, but there is no independent publication that covers problems independently,” he told VOA.
Hasanli and other journalists cited several economic problems, including an increase in the price of printing materials, publishing services and press broadcasting services, and the loss of newsstands.
“In normal countries, independent media outlets operate mainly on advertising revenue, while in Azerbaijan the government has blocked advertising revenue on independent newspapers,” Hasanli said.
keep business distance
Businesses take their cues from authorities and are often reluctant to advertise in media outlets under scrutiny or overly critical of the government.
Hasanli said he was aware of cases where business owners were brought in for questioning after advertising in independent media.
“There is already such an atmosphere of fear in Azerbaijan that entrepreneurs themselves understand and accept that they should not advertise in the independent media, as they may be called to the police station at any time,” he said.
Print media may be gradually phased out, but journalists and experts say the widespread use of social networks and the growth of online media are positive developments.
Media law expert Mammadali said these digital sites help create pluralism. “Most of the media outlets in Azerbaijan operate online, and all have a huge social media presence,” he said.
Freelance journalist Mahmudov said Facebook and YouTube are the most popular social media platforms in the country. As a result, he said, all independent Internet TV stations are focused on those platforms, and they attract more viewers “who want to get the right information.”
Mahmudov covers political, social, economic and human rights stories. The journalist said that people are able to speak more freely on social media, so he feels more comfortable working online.
According to a study by the Baku Research Institute, about 80% of Azerbaijan’s 10.1 million people are online, and social media users are on the rise. The number of social media users in the country increased by 600,000 between 2020 and 2021, according to research by the independent non-profit think tank.
Since a significant portion of the country’s population uses the Internet and social media daily, “online media platforms are trying to reach those audiences,” said Abjas’s Hasanli.
His site has around 200,000 followers on his social media platform. Hasanli estimated that the media outlet provides information to hundreds of thousands of users each month.
Online media may have more space to speak freely, but those covering human rights violations, corruption investigations or social problems still face obstacles.
Journalists say access to news websites can be blocked and that some officials refuse to comment or provide information to journalists at independent or opposition outlets.
Access to Hasanli’s site was blocked in April 2017 following coverage of alleged corruption by the ruling family and various high-ranking officials. The media outlet used a proxy site for some time but now mainly publishes on social media platforms.
Media outlets benefit from online operations, Hassanli said. They avoid the problems of printing and offline sales as well as the costs associated with printing.
But, like all independent journalists working in Azerbaijan, they still run the risk of threats and pressure.
“It is very difficult to work in these conditions,” he said.
This report originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani service.
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