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Azerbaijan: Foreign Broadcasts Banned Ahead of Constitutional Referendum

As the country prepared to see in the New Year, Azerbaijan's National Council for Television and Radio banned international radio stations from broadcasting on national frequencies. The decision was effective from 1 January 2009 and affected three radio stations broadcasting on the FM frequency – VOA, BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri service, Azadliq (Liberty).

In a region where tight government control defines the media, the ban was seen by some as an attack on the last remnants of free speech in Azerbaijan.

In particular, the ban on Azadliq was met with the disapproval of the politically active segment of society. Around the same time, another decision from parliament approved a referendum to be held on 18 March to lift the two-term presidential restriction in the Constitution. While the referendum was met with small protests inside and outside Azerbaijan, the ban on foreign radio was largely lost among much of the New Year festivities.

Nevertheless, some reaction is starting to appear.

Sözün Düzü [AZ], for example, posts a video from YouTube where a group of Azeri youth celebrates the New Year in solidarity with the station's staff in the last minutes of Azadliq. One of the youth interviewed in the video says that he had come to share the grief of the radio station while another comments that “they can close Azadliq, but Liberty will surely come to this country.

But, while the government responds to international outcry over the move by continuing to assert that listeners can still receive broadcasts on short wave frequencies, one blogger, Tabula Rasa [RU], writes that “they silence alternative voices” and asks “why now?” The blogger provides three hypothetical answers to his own question.

(1) The government prepares to sign a capitulatory peace on Nagorno-Karabakh;

(2) They want to hold the referendum without any troubles;

(3) As the price of oil fell four times, the economy is in a bad condition, and therefore the government tries to prevent any possible awakening in people's minds.

Meanwhile, various Facebook groups have been set up in support of Radio Liberty, VOA and the BBC in Azerbaijan. One such group, which at time of writing has 768 members, is Support Radio Liberty, VOA and BBC in Azerbaijan!!! [EN]. An online petition in their support has also been established here.

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