Independent journalism is a de facto crime in Azerbaijan. Information flow not under the control of the government is considered a fundamental threat to the authoritarian regime, and the consequences can be lethally high.
My colleagues and I know this all too well.
After spending 17 months in jail for expressing critical views, I left my country for Germany, where I founded Meydan TV, a nonprofit multimedia platform that publishes content in Azerbaijani, English, and Russian. Powerful political figures in Azerbaijan say we are attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.
I would argue exactly the opposite. Independent media outlets can be very useful even for authoritarian regimes, as long as the regime has an interest in pursuing a more or less reasonable development agenda. All the government has to do is respond in a timely way to the social, economic, and political problems we report. Solving problems is the easiest way for anyone to stay in power; ignoring problems inevitably leads to disaster and chaos.
In Azerbaijan, the government has stepped in to help individual citizens after reporting by Meydan TV. But these were isolated cases that did not result in any comprehensive policy geared toward creating lasting change in the country. And when state officials did offer assistance, they asked the people they helped not to publicize their actions.
The solution here is not to destroy independent media outlets but to transform the way the government thinks about such outlets. It would be in the government’s best interest to look at the media as an important institution that can help advance the development agenda of the country by identifying problems that political leaders can solve.
But transforming the government’s thinking is not our job. Our job is to inform society, and we will continue to do so. We are ready to pay any price. Many of us already have.