Protests have been held in front of the Parliament of Azerbaijan after the ‘On Media’ bill passed its first two readings. The bill has received criticism from journalists who fear that it will restrict the freedom of the press and its access to public information.
The bill has long been awaited since early this year, as President Ilham Aliyev founded an independent regulatory body — the Media Development Agency (MEDIA) — assigning it with the task of drafting the bill and submitting it to the state within two months.
On 10 December, the Law and State Policy and Human Rights parliamentary committees, together with MEDIA, met with heads of multiple pro-government media outlets to introduce them to the bill.
A few days later, the bill was leaked to several news agencies, and on 14 December, the day of its first hearing, it was published on the parliament’s website.
The draft law covers a broad area of regulations, including defining who can be a journalist and a series of content restrictions on different grounds.
According to the bill, the government will create a centralised state registry. The registration of journalists and media entities is voluntary — however, those who refuse to register forfeit the right to access information from public authorities or attend government events and press conferences.
If adopted, the law would restrict journalists from reporting on military emergencies and religious extremism and prohibit publishing material acquired through hidden cameras and audio recorders.
Many experts and independent journalists opposed the bill and urged the authorities to redraft it.
‘The state cannot have all the media licenses for itself’, media lawyer Alasgar Mammadli told the BBC’s Azerbaijani service, adding that ‘only TV and radio can be regulated because of the scarcity of frequencies, but the regulation of the internet, to which millions have access, is unjustifiable’.
A group of journalists has held two demonstrations in front of parliament to protest the proposed law, promising to continue demonstrating should the bill pass.
The police intervened in both protests with force, taking away signs from the demonstrators and driving them away from the building.
Journalist Nargiz Absalamova was injured during the latest protest on 28 December, after falling and breaking her leg after being trampled by police.
Azerbaijan is already among the most restrictive countries in the world in terms of media freedom. In their 2021 world media freedom index, Reporters Without Borders placed the country 167 out of 180 countries in the world.