Monday, May 14, 2007

Bad news for freedom of thought

Another political post! This is getting worrisome - I don't want to morph into some tedious political blogger. So next week I'll have to compensate with something more pleasant to muse over.

But for now, I've got to take up the issue of the assault on freedom of thought in Azerbaijan. That's what freedom of the press is - a manifestation of freedom of thought. (Consider, for instance, the Tokko in wartime Japan. They were the domestic thought-police, whose job it was to root out ideas, strands of thought in the collective consciousness that were not in line with the diktats of the imperial shogunate and eliminate them. Throw free-thinkers in prison: pacifists, communists, anyone who seemed to be infected by foreign ideas.)

Things are not that bad in Azerbaijan, of course. There is, after all, an opposition there. And foreign ideas and influences are cultivated in many strata of Azeri society. Nevertheless, the prosecutor's office just threw two free-thinkers into prison, and two weeks prior they also locked away the country's best-known opposition journalist. so the situation is pretty discouraging.

And what was their sin - these two independently-minded chaps who worked for the "Senet" newspaper? Well, the author of a commentary (a guy named Rafiq Tagi) entitled "Europe and Us" actually dared to suggest that Islam has, on the whole, hindered social, cultural, and political development in Azerbaijan and other Muslim states.

For this, he and his editor were charged with “inciting religious hatred.” Tagi was sentenced last week to four years in prison, while his editor received a three-year term. For the kind of speculative commentary that one would encourage in an undergraduate in the US, not to mention Europe.

They may be killed in prison, I'm afraid. Two Iranian ayotollahs have put out fatwas calling for the deaths of these two brave journalists. (One of the ayatollahs has said he will give his house to whoever succeeds.)

And remember the village of Nardaran, described below in the post entitled, "Refugees, oil rigs..."? The villagers held demonstrations after the article was published, with at least some of them demanding the deaths of Tagi and his editor.

That's not all. On April 27, independent journalist Eynulla Fatullayev was convicted of “criminal libel” and “insult” for comments he purportedly made during an interview and posted on a little-known website.

Fatullayev, perhaps Azerbaijan’s best-known opposition journalist, denies having made the comments, but he has been targeted for some time, and his conviction coincided with a physical attack on one of his newspaper colleagues. This is the latest reminder to critics of the government of the price they may be forced to pay when they stray too far from what is acceptable, to both the government and the conservative Shi’ite establishment.

It pains me to say this, since I care about Azerbaijan. But the path the government is taking is at the very least cowardly and is designed to placate certain "constituencies," to put it in the least polemical terminology.

Journalism in Azerbaijan has been a high-risk endeavor since before the 2005 murder of Elmar Huseynov, editor of the independent Monitor newspaper, and a friend of Fatullayev’s. Late last year, Freedom House, the international organization that monitors democratic development, downgraded Azerbaijan from “partly free’ to “not free.” So the envelope for journalists has been defined this week a bit more clearly.

This trend betrays Azerbaijan's history and traditions, I would argue. This is the country that created a democracy after the first world war, until it was absorbed by Joseph Stalin's USSR shortly thereafter. (Joe Stalin had some experience with Azerbaijan, since it was there that he organized strikes amongst the oil workers and published political tracts.)

Azerbaijan gave women the vote in the early twentieth century, and Azerbaijan rationally drew the boundaries between state, individual, and religious affiliation. And I know that Azerbaijan can succeed once again in redefining itself. But these recent developments sadden me. You might argue that something is being bought with the conviction of Tagi and his editor, perhaps something like stability. That's because the conservatives in the south and in the clergy are being placated with a prison sentence. Not to mention the Iranians, who never lose an opportunity to remind Azerbaijan that they could pull some strings and create real problems. (And Nadaran? It doesn't matter, really. It's a sideshow.) Those may be factors, but I am still sickened, and I can't stop thinking about these guys rotting in prison.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Political troubles, 2005

I don't put up many political posts here, in part because this site is supposed to be a refuge from that sort of thing, a place for me to delve into dadaesque stream-of-consciousness nonsense. But I'm going to violate that rule, if it is a rule, today and later this week.

Firstly, I've gotten some requests for photos from the 2005 period when a "color revolution" was attempted. It failed for a number of reasons that I won't go into (if you've read my stuff for Security Watch, then you know why it failed), but here is a photo montage from that very difficult period in Azerbaijan's history.

They are all my shots with the exception of the one where you can see me amidst a million police during the November 26 riot. The photo was taken by one of the owners of Azerfoto, who--two seconds after he took this picture--grabbed me from behind and shouted, "Come with me! You are in great danger here!"

"But I can get a really good shot here!" I replied.

Resisting the urge to lecture me on my obtuseness, he shouted, "Quickly! You must run!"

So I ran. Right into more violence.

In a few days, I'll post something on what is happening to freedom of the press in Azerbaijan. It isn't good.