Mass media laws and regulations in Azerbaijan ensure basic freedom of the press, but independent and pro-opposition media still face some legal limitations while exercising their rights. The censorship of media was officially abolished in 1998. Also, the Mass Media Law that passed in 2000 openly forbids censorship, with the exception of temporary restrictions on the media activities in case of emergency. At the same time, the TV and Radio Broadcasting Law emphasises that broadcasting is free and puts the state as the main responsible in providing this freedom by ensuring that information acquisition and dissemination are possible without obstacles and in a legal way.
According to the Mass Media Law, anyone willing to establish a print publication can do so with no need to obtain permission from the public authorities, but with the obligation to inform the relevant body of the executive authority seven days before starting the publication. Unlike broadcasting media, print media has more favourable conditions, including the provisions to establish an outlet and the subsequent tax regulations. Public and private broadcasting channels are regulated by two laws, namely Public TV and Radio Broadcasting Law and Radio and TV Broadcasting Law. The Public Television and Radio was established in 2005 with the aim to ensure the interests of society and deliver information based on the concepts of freedom of speech and of ideas, as stated by the government.
Registering a newspaper with the Ministry of Justice has easier conditions in contrast to acquiring license for TV and radio broadcasting. According to law, channels that are not state- or public-owned, are supposed to obtain a license to broadcast, provided they win a tender conducted by the National Television and Radio Council, which has very broad evaluative criteria, leaving space for personal judgment.
There were some changes to legislation that affected the capability of media to be diverse and meet the needs of journalists. The freedom of media was influenced negatively especially by the amendments of July 2012 which increased the closure of information on corporate entities. Specifically, the changes limited public access to information about the ownership of commercial entities, including their capital, structure of ownership, etc.
On 14 May, 2013, the Criminal Code was amended. The definition of slander specified in Article 147 of the Code was broadened by adding the following words: “in a mass media outlet or on the Internet information resource when displayed publicly.” Thus, the Internet and social networks were also included in the scope of the article. On 29 November, 2016, a new article was added to the Criminal Code, which determines responsibility for online slander or insult by using fake usernames, profiles or accounts. According to the article, penalties have been toughened to include even imprisonment for up to one year for publicly displayed slander or insult put online by using fake usernames, profiles or accounts.
In February 2017, the parliament adopted the revised bill on Martial Law. The revised law envisages appealing relevant bodies regarding the operation of mass media outlets in special regime, limiting or suspending their operations if there are legal grounds during the martial law. According to the bill, Azerbaijan can apply military censorship on media upon the declaration of martial law in the country. Military censorship includes pre-coordination of mass media information by military and state authorities, control on correspondences for the purpose of preventing illegal dissemination of state secrets, on TV and radio broadcast as well as phone and radio talks.
In March 2017, Azerbaijan’s Law on Dissemination and Protection of Information was amended to provide a legal basis for blocking online resources. The measure also gave the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies the power to shut down an Internet outlet without a court order. Two months after the amendments were approved, a Baku court blocked the access from the country of the websites of Radio Azadliq, Azadliq newspaper, Berlin-based Meydan TV and sibling video news channels Azerbaycan Saati and Turan TV.