Overview

On 28 May, 1918, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became the first democratic parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. For the first time in the area and long before some European countries, women were granted the right to vote. On 28 April, 1920, the country was occupied by Bolshevik Russia. In 1920-1922, its formal independence was de-facto recognised by the international community. During the Soviet era, Azerbaijan’s statehood faced serious challenges. On 18 October, 1991, when the country gained full independence it declared itself the political and legal successor of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and demonstrated commitment to its ancient traditions of statehood, soon restoring its old state symbols.

While media have formally abandoned the administrative system of Soviet times, they act as if it was still in place. This happens because there are no favourable conditions for the development of independent media in the country. Therefore, media have turned into a fully-fledged structure with very low material revenues and most outlets in Azerbaijan do not have long-term strategies because of the lack of competition. This is especially the case of the print press, with newspapers lacking advertisement, which are mostly noticeable on digital media. Newspapers such as Azadliq, Ayna, and Zerkalo had hundreds of advertising partners in the mid-1990s and today they have all ceased to operate. The deterioration of the political situation has also reflected in the advertising market, resulting in the newspapers stopping from publishing. Another issue of the local media landscape is related to media entrepreneurs. There is almost no information about them, with obvious consequences on transparency. The identity of media owners is important in an environment where there is no advertising, no sales and no subscription system.

The Azerbaijani press has gone through four phases coinciding with the political situation: 1) Newspapers and magazines published under tsarist Russian rule (1832-1917); 2) printed organs published during the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1920); 3) printed publications of the Soviet era (1920-1991) and diaspora press; 4) publications printed since the restoration of independence (from 1991 to the present).

As of 2019, there are two state-funded TV channels, which are not meeting the population's information needs. In 2018 31.8m Azerbaijani manat were allocated to AzTV and AZN11.6m to ITV. Nevertheless, the result is that these amounts do not provide citizens with pluralistic information, since AZTV and ITV represent the interests of the government that funds them, not of society. Their news programs are not objective, alternative views are not included, the opposition and independent voices are not invited to the airwaves. The situation in the print press is similar: Tens of millions of manats were allocated to media outlets from the President's Reserve Fund in 2010-2018.

Azerbaijani media are influenced by the political processes in the country and are basically separated in pro-government and pro-opposition media. The first are controlled by the ruling party and never face charges or courts as a result. Journalists of these media outlets are impacted by the state’s Soviet-style propaganda. Traditional broadcast media are fully controlled by the government and there is no way for alternative thinking on TV and radio. Even during presidential election campaigns opposition candidates have limited access to broadcast media. Usually, the propaganda of the candidate from the ruling party starts even prior to the official approval from the Central Election Commission and all the country's television channels join the campaign. In addition, there are longer provisions for free airtime for all candidates, which would give an opportunity to criticise domestic and foreign policies, or any illegal actions by the government. The opposition has more opportunities to voice criticism on social networks and during rallies, than through mainstream media.

According to the Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan there are four arrested journalists. Afgan Mukhtarli, Seymur Hazi, Araz Guliyev and Elchin Ismayilli. Exiled journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, whose wife initially reported him missing from their home in Tbilisi, Georgia, on 29 May, 2017, surfaced the following day in a detention center in Baku, Azerbaijan. On 12 January, 2018, a district court sentenced the journalist to six years in prison. Seymur Hazi arrested on 29 August, 2014, was accused of “aggravated hooliganism.” Authorities said that while waiting for a bus on his way to work, Hazi attacked and beat a Baku resident. In January 2015, he was sentenced to five years in jail. His detainment is said to be politically motivated in response to his criticism of the Azerbaijani government.

Since the early 2000s the Azerbaijani press was intended as "a political tool". First of all, the Soviet state of mind is still actual and the government pays attention to both newsmaking and media production, with the main goal to influence the public opinion. Secondly, the press is mainly intended as an instrument of economic development and a means of fostering national identity. It is considered to protect national security and the interests of the state. Representatives of the media also act as defenders of national interests and national security, rather than simply telling the truth about their professional activities.

Since 2013, a government project approved by President Ilham Aliyev’s decree, has started granting local journalists with free housing. Apartments were provided for 156 journalists in 2013 and 255 in 2017. The construction of a third building is still taking place, and will house more than 255 media workers when completed. These journalists come from a variety of media outlets: newspapers, radio, TV, Internet sites, freelance journalists. The measure has generated debate in the media community: Journalists in favour of it hail it as a form of wealth redistribution, while others see it as yet another attempt to smother media freedom in the country. Receiving housing from the government questions the objectivity and honesty of journalists. Accepting gifts, journalists risk losing their status and becoming the spokespersons of a certain interest group. This behaviour is in breach of the Code of Professional Ethics of Journalists of Azerbaijan, which clearly states that a journalist should not accept any gift, honorarium, free ticket or any other offer or service.

In Azerbaijan journalism education is based more on theory than practice and the subject is thought more during training sessions and seminars than in universities. To provide some context, it can be noted that up to 2-3 years of the bachelor's degree are devoted to teaching media history. The conditions for the practice of journalism are severely limited. The media departments of some universities feature training centres including television and radio studios, but the content produced there does not circulate outside of faculty, while the departmental newspapers lack real news articles and are comprised mostly of reviews. Overall, students don't get many opportunities out of these departmental outlets. The professors teaching at journalism departments also face financial problems. They must either work at several universities or seek jobs outside the academic environment. As a result, teachers lack the possibility to work on self-development, with negative consequences on their teaching methods and the quality of their lectures. Therefore media managers tend not to offer positions to new graduates of the faculty of journalism, who are somehow considered unskilled.