On December 30, 2021, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan passed a bill for a new Media Law, which, if President Ilham Aliyev signs it into law, will introduce a new legal framework for the regulation of online and print media outlets and of journalists engaged in the creation and dissemination of “mass information.” The bill was passed on the third reading, during which minor amendments to the text of the second reading were made. With the entry into force of the new law, the Law on Mass Media (No. 769-IQ) and Law on Television and Radio Broadcasts (No. 345-IIQ) will be repealed.
The new law would be applicable “to media entities established in the territory of Azerbaijan, their editorial offices, their products, as well as all media entities outside Azerbaijan and whose activities are aimed at the territory and population of Azerbaijan to the extent that their media products created outside Azerbaijan are disseminated within Azerbaijani territory, and to journalists.” (Art. 3.1.) The status and activities of foreign media entities and the accreditation of foreign journalists are not subject to the general framework provided by the new law. (Art. 11.)
The law provides, inter alia, definitions of “media entities” (art. 25); certain main principles that all information published or disseminated by media entities must abide by (arts. 14–15); the right to refute, respond, or correct (arts. 18–19); limits to foreign ownership or sponsorship of media entities registered in Azerbaijan (arts. 26, 69); the establishment of the Audiovisual Council as the body regulating the field of audiovisual media (art. 43); rules concerning the activities of journalists (art. 70 et seq.); and the establishment of a “media register” (art. 73 et seq.).
“Media entities” are defined as entities whose main activity is the publication or dissemination of non-legally proscribed information to an unlimited number of persons (i.e., “mass information”). (Art. 1.1.3.) Media entities are categorized as “audiovisual,” “print,” and “online” media entities, and news agencies. (Art. 25.) The law provides licensing requirements for all audiovisual media entities, which include all television and radio broadcasters, as well as retransmitters of such broadcasts, using any technology, including over the internet. (Art. 50.) The law sets forth the procedure for obtaining licenses.
The law defines “journalists” as persons who are employed by media subjects under an employment contract, or operate independently on the basis of their own copyright and a civil law contract, and whose main and continuous activity is collecting, preparing, editing and producing, transmitting, and commenting on information for the purpose of gaining income.
Significantly, the law would establish a “media register” in which media entities and journalist are registered. While registration in the media register would be voluntary (although it is automatic upon licensing for audiovisual media entities), registration would be necessary for accessing certain journalistic privileges, including, inter alia, accreditation of journalists by state and nongovernmental bodies (art. 72.1); the obtaining of a journalist card, which is required for accreditation and entering places where events of public, political, social, or economic significance are taking place to collect and report information on such events (art. 71.1.2–3); and access to certain benefits, including special trainings, participation in certain projects organized by the state, and financial benefits (art. 76).
The law provides grounds for the suspension and revocation of audiovisual media entity licenses (arts. 57–58) and for deregistration from the media register (art. 75).
Responses to the Law
The new law has been criticized by various commentators. Critics have raised concerns about ambiguities in the language of the law; the amount of personal of information that is to be included in the media register; the requirement that real or legal-entity owners of media entities must be permanently resident in Azerbaijan to be eligible for registration in the media register; the scope of discretion provided to the government to reject registration of journalists on the basis of certain requirements, such as their having respected journalistic ethics during their journalistic activity, having a higher education degree, or, regarding independent journalists, having a civil law contract with a media entity.
On the other hand, the law’s proponents have argued that the new law would provide a much-needed upgrade of the outdated media laws, that it would guarantee media freedom, and, contrary to the suggestion of some critics, would not attempt to regulate nonprofessional “citizen journalism”-type activities or make internet publications subject to licensing.Critics of the bill have called on President Aliyev not to sign the bill into law. Most recently, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights issued a letter inviting Aliyev to return the bill to the National Assembly for revisions, citing her concerns that the bill overregulates the media sector and the journalism profession by granting broad discretionary powers to state authorities, and that there was no broad consultation on the bill. The Media Development Agency of Azerbaijan responded in a letter arguing that the concerns were misplaced.