Azerbaijan and Burma: two countries, one strategy?

Both Burma and Republic of Azerbaijan let their parliamentary elections, held on the same day – 7 November 2010 – be followed by the release of high-profile political prisoners. While the world condemned the unfair elections, the releases of Aung San Suu Kyi and two Azeri bloggers were widely applauded. Both regimes seem to want to turn international attention away from difficult topics.

Azerbaijan and Burma are characterized by low levels of freedom of expression. The two countries are both listed among the bottom 20 in Reporters Without Borders, recently released Press Freedom Index 2010. The entire list consists of 178 states.

According to Freedom House, Burma is also among the ten countries in the world with the lowest score on both political rights and civil liberties.

Unfair elections
Parliamentary elections were held in both Azerbaijan and Burma on 7 November 2010.

International election observers evaluated the Parliamentary election in Azerbaijan as one of the least free elections in this country during the post-Soviet era. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in its preliminary conclusions stated that “limitations of media freedom and the freedom of assembly and a deficient candidate registration process further weakened the opposition and made a vibrant political discourse almost impossible. This and a restricted competitive environment created an uneven playing field for candidates making it difficult for voters to make an informed choice.”

OSCE also reported that there was “unequal access of political parties to resources necessary for effective campaigning” with a clear domination of the public and political discourse by one party.

The situation in Burma was even worse. There. elections were held for the first time in 20 years. The new Constitution, adopted in 2008, and new election laws eliminated opposition pro-democracy parties from taking part in elections. The ruling junta secured its own victory well in advance of the elections by a sequence of steps made long before the polling day.

Freedom of expression and access to information were extremely restricted in Burma. Foreign journalists were banned by the Election Commission from entering the country. The few electoral candidates that were not military-aligned and had managed to get past numerous obstacles to register were also censored by the government and the state-controlled media, which refused to publish their opinions.

In the build-up to the elections in both Azerbaijan and Burma, www.humanrightshouse.org has published several articles expressing the concerns regarding freedom of expression and other violations of both the Human Rights House Network and other international NGOs. Find some of the article covering Azerbaijan here and here, and some other covering Burma here, here and here.

Manoeuvre
Shortly after their elections, both Azerbaijan and Burma decided to release their most well-known prisoners of conscience. However, the releases only came after strong and sustained international criticism of unfree and unfair elections.

So – were the releases a kind of action made to shift the international attention away from the negatives of the elections onto more positive issues? And if so, do the authorities of these countries rather want to hide the broader range of problems, including the many severe violations of freedom of expression and other human rights?

International freedom of expression agencies and human rights NGOs congratulate these steps but remind that the release of one or two persons is not enough.

Burma’s case
When Aung San Suu Kyi was freed, international organisations called on the government of Burma to immediately release not just her, but all prisoners of conscience in the country. Suu Kyi was one of more than 2,200 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, currently being held in deplorable conditions for simply exercising their right to peaceful protest.

The world’s leaders expressed their support to the movement for democracy in the country. Human rights groups also welcomed Suu Kyi’s release but some remained suspicious over the junta’s motives.

Azeri bloggers
The release of two Azeri bloggers, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, left, was perceived as a positive step for freedom of expression  in Azerbaijan. The two were imprisoned in 2009 after being convicted of “hooliganism,” charges which have been heavily contested both in Azerbaijan and by the international community. despite the protests, the two were sentenced in November 2009 to 24 and 30 months in prison respectively.

Shortly after Milli’s and hajizade’s release, a youth activist and parliamentary candidate, the Harvard University graduate Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, was detained at the Azerbaijani-Georgia border. Hajiev had recently published live images of grave manipulations of the vote in his own constituency and still holds his candidacy’s immunity.

Amnesty International and Article 19 urge the authorities of Azerbaijan to take immediate steps to address the broader freedom of expression problems in the country. “The Azerbaijani authorities need to do much more to improve freedom of expression in the country, starting with the release of others imprisoned for expressing critical opinions,” commented Article 19 Executive Director Agnès Callamard.

Article 19 has serious concerns regarding the broader freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan, where journalists are often subjected to acts of violence whilst their attackers go unpunished, criminal law is abused to imprison government critics, and the state dominates the broadcast media. As a result, self-censorship has become pervasive, with few persons willing to undertake the risks associated with pursuing critical or investigative journalism.

Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders call upon the authorities to release newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev, who has been detained since April 2007. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last April that he was being held illegally and should be freed at once.

HRH Oslo, based on Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Article 19, Freedom House, Norwegian Burma Committee, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Hournalists and OSCE information.

Related links:

Azerbaijan:

Profound pessimism about Azerbaijan’s elections

Azerbaijan: free expression under attack before elections

Azerbaijan: joint mission concerned by state of freedom of expression ahead of elections

Azerbaijan: freedom of expression situation has deteriorated over the past five years

Azerbaijani bloggers sentenced

No news is not good news regarding freedom of expression in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan: Human rights organisations demand to comply with European Court decision

Azeri authorities clamp down on election-related demonstration

 

Burma:

Burma: 2010 elections may bring no change 

Burma: 2010 elections will define the political landscape for years to come

Burma: elections without free expression

Burma: no foreign journalists or observers for elections

Burma: no visas for foreigners before election, NLD announces boycott

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