Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Azerbaijan: Baku Building Free Apartments for Country’s “Free Press”

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org

Baku Building Free Apartments for Country’s “Free Press”

by Shahin Abbasov EurasiaNet.org

When it comes to dealing with independent-minded journalists, authorities in Azerbaijan appear to believe that if they can’t beat them, tempt them.

In May, Azerbaijan will be hosting the wildly popular Eurovision song contest, an event that Azerbaijani officials hope will bring the energy-rich Caspian Basin nation lots of international prestige. But it is also prompting greater scrutiny of Baku’s rights record. One of the biggest trouble spots for Azerbaijani authorities is media freedom. A 2011 evaluation by UNHCR described Azerbaijan’s freedom-of-expression environment as “dire.”

Over the past few years, two prominent commentators, Elmar Huseynov and Rafiq Tagi, have been murdered for what they wrote. More broadly, independent journalists have had to deal with what watchdogs describe as persistent government intimidation. Until recently a favorite government tactic was manipulating the country’s judicial system to stifle criticism of officials. In one high profile case, two bloggers were attacked in a Baku café, only to be charged with assault and sentenced to multi-year prison terms.

With European eyes increasingly on Baku, officials seem to be eschewing a heavy-handed approach in favor of a new tactic – offering to provide working journalists with free apartments.

Officials dismiss the notion that they are trying to influence media coverage by offering a gigantic perk to reporters. The project’s initiator insists the whole thing is connected to the government’s commitment to improve living conditions for citizens. Real estate in Baku is expensive and journalists’ salaries are low; hence, free housing is needed, explained Aflatun Amashov, who chairs the Press Council of Azerbaijan, a semi-official body overseeing print media.

“Many journalists, professionals who have been working in print media for decades, do not have apartments,” noted Amashov, who said he first proposed the idea to President Ilham Aliyev in 2009. “These people deserve to have one.”

Ali Hasanov, a top presidential aide, suggested that officials are hoping the housing initiative will somehow encourage the development of a freer press. “Providing citizens with housing is a duty of the state,” the Trend news agency quoted Hasanov as saying in January. “By this step, we are shaping the attitude of the Azerbaijani public toward journalists.”

In 2010, President Aliyev ordered the government to divert 5 million manats (about $6.2 million) from the presidential reserve fund to the Fund for State Support of Mass Media Development, with the money earmarked for construction of an apartment building for journalists. Construction of the 16-storey building began last December 2011 on just under a hectare of land in the prestigious Baku suburb of Bibi-heybat, a site not far from the venue for the heavily promoted 2012 Eurovision contest. Reporters will not be able to move into the building’s 154 one and two-bedroom apartments in time for the Eurovision event in May. Construction is scheduled to finish in September 2013, just two months before presidential elections.

Vugar Safarov, the director of the media development fund, declined to show floor plans. He did say that the apartments would include kitchen equipment and come with a full-service repair plan. Five stories of the residence have been built so far, he added.
Yadigar Mammadli, the president of the Democratic Journalists’ League, a Baku-based independent media trade union, believes competition for the flats “will be tough.”

“Journalists are seriously underpaid with an average [monthly] wage of 300 manats (about $380), while the average price of one square meter of housing in Baku is 650 manats (about $828),” Mammadli said, citing data from the Baku Real Estate Agency Association. Aside from low salaries, many journalists do not have contracts with their employers, which complicates any attempt to get a mortgage for their own apartment, he added.

Selection criteria for the 154 residences will be decided and a special commission will be formed to consider applicants about six months before completion of the apartment building, Safarov said. The Press Council’s Amashov, who expects to sit on the committee, says that the major criterion should be proof that an applicant needs an apartment, though “work experience and merits should also be taken into consideration.”

Exactly how they will be taken into consideration worries some journalists. Elchin Shikhlinsky, the editor-in-chief of Baku’s Russian-language daily Zerkalo (Mirror), hinted that journalists hoping to secure an apartment could engage in self-censorship in order to boost their chances.

“How will a journalist who received a free apartment from the government then be able to criticize this government?” said Shikhlinsky. He described the initiative as “nothing but an attempt to buy journalists.”

Mammadli agreed, but said most Azerbaijani media are already under the government’s control – either directly or indirectly. The situation “is not going to be any worse, if over 100 journalists in need receive apartments,” he said.

Even those editors who are outraged at the housing plan are reluctant to criticize those who might chose to live on the government’s dime. Concerns for their reporters’ living standards seem to take precedence over ethical concerns.

Mehman Aliyev, director of Azerbaijan’s oldest independent news agency, Turan, lambasted the apartment building as another form of “economic censorship” of independent journalists, but he conceded that he will not stop any Turan employees from applying for the apartments.

“If I could pay them enough to buy an apartment, I would be against it,” Aliyev said. [Editor’s Note: Mehman Aliyev formerly served as chairperson of the board of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network].

Zerkalo’s Shikhlinsky expressed a similar view for Zerkalo reporters who do not have apartments -- a number he estimated at about one-third of the paper’s 60-person staff. As elsewhere in the Caucasus, such individuals usually share a flat with relatives. “Their salary does not allow them to even think about buying real estate at commercial prices,” he said. “Therefore, I would not be against it -- and even will try to help -- if my employees would apply for free apartments. But the moral side is their own issue.”

Press Council Chairperson Amashov sees no moral dimension to the issue. The apartments, he said, should be given out to employees of pro-government or state-run media outlets and opposition news outlets alike. Acceptance of such a flat from the government cannot taint the reporter, he argued. “If a journalist is objective, he will remain objective despite anything,” he said.

Editor's note:
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.