With Azerbaijan’s print media curtailed by years of economic and political pressure, online news outlets are filling the gap.
Media analysts in Azerbaijan say the country’s print media have almost disappeared, but that the country is seeing a growth in online media.
The decline of newspapers is the biggest loss Azerbaijani media has faced in over a decade, said media rights expert and lawyer Alasgar Mammadli.
“Newspapers in Azerbaijan were once very powerful and at the same time 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 a critical stance have been shut down.” The media watchdog ranks Azerbaijan 154th out of 180 countries where 1 is the freest on its World Press Freedom Index.
The country’s papers folded for a variety of reasons, with analysts saying authorities use the courts or withhold state financial support or public funding to pressure independent news outlets.
Azerbaijan’s government, however, disputes claims that media come under political pressure or harassment.
“There is no problem stemming from the government. Media is a business entity. The government gives tax incentives,” a spokesperson from Azerbaijan’s Media Development Agency told VOA.
The government agency oversees press accreditation and licensing, and it has the power to issue warnings and file lawsuits against media outlets deemed to have violated laws.
Kamran Mahmudov, a Baku-based freelancer, told VOA that Azerbaijan’s newspaper industry faces many problems, from lack of funding to a lack of freedom. He said only a few newspapers are still published, and those belong to the ruling party or people close to the government.
“They try to show that they are publishing newspapers,” Mahmudov said. “But no one needs those newspapers. These newspapers do not have efficiency and objectivity. No one trusts them.”
Ulvi Hasanli, co-founder and editor of the independent news website Abzas, said he believed the independent print media largely collapsed because of political pressure.
“The government dismantled them through administrative resources and the courts. At present, certain newspapers are published, but there is no independent publication that freely covers the problems,” he told VOA.
Hasanli and other journalists cited a range of economic problems, including increases 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, whereas in Azerbaijan the government has blocked advertising revenue on independent newspapers,” Hasanli said.
Businesses keep their distance
Businesses take their cue from authorities and often are hesitant to advertise in media outlets under investigation or seen as overly critical of the government.
Hasanli said he was aware of cases where business owners were brought in for questioning after placing advertisements in independent media.
“There is already such an atmosphere of fear in Azerbaijan that entrepreneurs themselves understand and accept that they should not put ads in independent media, because at any moment they may be called to the police station,” he said.
The print media may slowly be pushed out, but journalists and experts say widespread use of social networks and growth of online media are positive developments.
Media law expert Mammadli said these digital sites help create pluralism. “Most media outlets in Azerbaijan operate online, and all have heavy social media presence,” he said.
Facebook and YouTube are the most popular social media platforms in the country, said independent journalist Mahmudov. As a result, he said, all of the independent internet TV stations are concentrated on those platforms, and they attract more viewers “who want to get the right information.”
Mahmudov covers political, social, economic and human rights stories. With people able to speak more freely on social media, the journalist said, he feels more comfortable working online.
Around 80% of Azerbaijan’s 10.1 million people are online, and social media users are increasing, according to a study by the Baku Research Institute. The number of social media users in the country rose by 600,000 between 2020 and 2021, according to research by the independent nonprofit think tank.
Since a significant part of the country’s population uses the internet and social media daily, “online media platforms are trying to reach that audience,” Hasanli of Abzas said.
His site has around 200,000 followers spread across social media platforms. 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.
Access to news websites can be blocked and some officials decline to comment or provide information to journalists at independent or opposition outlets, journalists say.
Access to Hasanli’s site was blocked in April 2017 after its coverage of alleged corruption by the ruling family and various high-ranking officials. The media outlet used a proxy site for a while but now publishes primarily on social media platforms.
Media outlets enjoy benefits from operating online, Hasanli said. They avoid problems with printing and offline sales, as well as costs associated with printing.
But, like all independent journalists working in Azerbaijan, they still risk threats and pressure.
“It is very difficult to operate under these conditions,” he said.
This report originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.