Azerbaijan has decided not to renew the broadcasting licenses of Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the BBC. The decision would effectively silence foreign media according to Kenan Aliyev, director of Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan.
"If we lose FM," he said, "we lose 95 percent of our audience." The banned broadcasters would only be able to broadcast in Azerbaijan via satellite or cable networks.
In a written statement, U.S. Acting Deputy State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. "deeply regret(s) Azerbaijan's decision not to renew the broadcasting licenses of Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the BBC.
These media organizations play a crucial role in supporting democratic debate and the free exchange of ideas and information. This decision, if carried out," said Mr. Duguid, "will represent a serious setback to freedom of speech, and retard democratic reform in Azerbaijan."
The move to silence foreign broadcasters appears to be part of an overall campaign against the free press. In 2008 three prominent journalists remained in prison based on politically-motivated charges. A fourth journalist was sentenced in a court proceeding with serious violations of judicial process.
Emin Huseynov, a journalist, was hospitalized after the police detained and severely beat him. Authorities failed to investigate the incident or solve any of the other cases involving violence against journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders yearly press freedom index, Azerbaijan ranks 150 out of 173 countries.
Without the FM broadcasts of Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC, Azerbaijanis will have almost no access to uncensored media, says Charles Rice with the International Center for Journalists. Unlike local and state-owned media, the foreign stations thoroughly report on issues such as corruption and bribery.
Jeffrey Hirschberg is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees VOA and RFE/RL. "The people of Azerbaijan," he said, "are the real losers. The decision appears to be part of a concerted official effort to limit access to unbiased information. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to reverse this decision and to continue to work to resolve this situation, as they indicated they would. Meanwhile, we will pursue all available alternatives for broadcasting the popular programs of RFE/RL and VOA to Azerbaijan."