Words can harm more than actions, as Azerbaijan’s journalists know far too well; the list of reporters under the authorities’ radar gets longer by the day but publishing houses are not immune from their scrutiny.
One of the country’s older printing companies, Qanun (“law” in Azeri), has been under pressure since the early 2000s and culminated in 2013 when accusations of tax evasion brought to the street scores of human rights’ advocates to denounce what they considered trumped-up charges. Since then, Qanun’s relations with the authorities have been vitriolic, but asserting freedom of expression has been an uphill battle for Qanun and its founding director Shahbaz Khuduoglu from the very beginning.
The publishing house started operating in January 1992 and for four years shared the premises with the homonym monthly magazine. In 1996 the printing company and the magazine were split into two separate entities - the latter, a specialised legal publication, survived the ups and downs of the media landscape and is still published regularly.
“At that time, we thought we could help, we were in the early years of independence and we focused mainly on publishing law books as well as translating world literature,” says Khuduoglu, the 48-year-old outspoken owner who has been advocating for years to increase books’ distribution across the country. In the early 1990s there was a vacuum in book publishing and companies like Qanun indeed filled it - the initial 40 books sold daily have grown to roughly 100 today.
Disappointment soon replaced enthusiasm, and from the early 2000s Qanun has been printing fewer law books - today they make about 10% of the whole production.
“We witnessed the lack of independent judiciary, how the law was applied, and how everything is in the hands of the government which does not care about such publications. We gave up and focused only on translating popular literature from all over the world.”
Being a journalist, on top of his entrepreneurial activity, did not help in keeping Khuduoglu safe from the government’s inspection. Tension between authorities and media started climbing in the early 2000s as Qanun was also involved in printing and distributing opposition newspapers in Azerbaijan.
In 2000, Qanun printed and distributed “Millətin səsi” (People’s Voice), an independent newspaper. It did not last long - Khudoglu was sued by the head of the presidential administration for “insulting the President’s honor and dignity,” then arrested and detained for six months. He stop printing “Millətin səsi.”
Khudoglu spent time in jail with Elmar Huseynov, an independent journalist known for his harsh criticism of local authorities. Once they were both released, Khudoglu decided to open Qanun’s doors to Huseynov to print his magazine.
“We decided that I will open the publishing house to Elmar so he could print “Weekly Monitor,” an independent socio-analytical magazine in Russian that he edited.”
On March 25, 2005 Huseynov was murdered. His killers were never found.
As most of the country’s publishing companies are linked to government officials, independent publications would turn to Qanun as one of the rare privately-owned houses.
“Ahead of the presidential election in 2003 media suffered increased pressure, so independent and opposition publications came to us for printing their material” says Khuduoglu. “Our pressers would work 24/7,” he adds.
Jailing Khuduoglu did not work, so cutting the electricity ahead of the vote of October 2003 was the next step. The company reacted by getting a generator to keep the rotary printing presses going, but then they had to face the neighbours’ anger.
“The electricty was cut in the whole district, so schools and kindergardens turned against us. They protested in front of our bulding everyday."
International organizations, specifically the Norwegian embassy, came to the rescue and supported Qanun to relocate in another area of the capital Baku.
“Around the eletion campaign there was a big need for freedom of speech,” the director recalls.
The government was again after Khuduoglu’s business and accusations of tax evasion started coming in. The company was audited over two years, between August 2011 and August 2013.
In November 2013 what was billed as a tax inspection resulted in a fine of AZN112,000 ($68,625) for the publishing house and AZN47,000 ($27,798)* to the Qanun magazine. The firm was charged of evading AZN74,000 ($45,119)* , an accusation the company denies. In addition folders and computers were taken from the printing house’s office and despite complaints, documents were not returned to them.
Qanun had to stop printing newspapers.
“The search lacked legal basis and it violated the article 67 of the tax code which specifically details illegal tax inspections,” maintains Muzaffar Bakhishov, Qanun’s lawyer who, after a failed appeal to the court in Azerbaijan, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights," the lawer says.
The Ministry of Taxes denies any wrongdoing, stating that the inspection was legal.
“Inspections are based on precise information about tax evasions and the tax liability is calculated following the results of the inspection,” Shahin Mammadov, one of the ministry’s told Chai Khana.
Two year later, Qanun returned under the government’s radar since it was then printing the brochures advocating the case of Ilgar Mammadov, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement - REAL. Billed as a likely candidate for the presidential elections of October 2013, he was arrested in February the same year after traveling to Ismayili, a town in the north of the country where alleged abuse of power by the local governor led to street riots. His arrest was widely seen as politically motivated. In March 2014 he was sentenced to seven years in jail.
“On June 11, policemen from the Baku Police Department raided our office stating that were looking “for a bomb” and took with them material not yet finalized and a few printed papers,” notes Khuduoglu.
The printing house’s staff constantly feel on the edge that something is about to happen and for the director the pressure is double. If we close, Azerbaijan will lose its books and people will lose their jobs,” he states, referring to the company’s 44 employees.
Kifayet Haqverdiyeva, 42, has been working for ten years as a translator, translating dozens of books, mainly from Russian into Azeri.
“Books enlighten people - fewer of them would keep people in the dark,” she sighs.
Since 2013, the Azerbaijani manat has been hit by a sharp devaluation. In 2013 AZN112,000 corresponded to $143,360, as of October 2016 to $68,625. Similarly, in 2013 AZN47,000 corresponded to $60,160 while as of October 2016 it corresponds to $27,798. Qanun was charged of evading AZN74,000 which in 2013 were equal to $94,720, as of October 2016 that amount dropped to $45,119.