Speculations swirl around closure of pro-government Azerbaijani news agency

Originally published by Eurasianet

The Azerbaijani authorities have pulled the plug on the news agency APA, an indication that even reliably pro-government media are not safe in the ongoing crackdown on press in the country.

APA, as well as its sister agencies Lent.az and APA Sport in the company APA Holding, were all shut down on August 1. The authorities did not provide any explanation, but media observers in the country suggest that there could be internal business struggles behind the move.

The apparent pretext for the shutdown was a mistranscription of a speech by President Ilham Aliyev, speaking at an August 1 ceremony giving out cars and homes to war veterans.

“If Armenian leaders continue to stall the negotiations, we will continue our isolation policy and use all our resources to further weaken Armenia," Aliyev said in his speech. But APA used a different verb, rendering the sentence as: “... will use all our resources to destroy Armenia." Many Azerbaijani news sites reprint APA stories and so the error spread.

APA quickly apologized for the mistake, but it apparently was not enough. Two days later, the agency’s editor-in-chief Vusala Mahirqizi announced on her Facebook page: “As a result of certain problems, the activity of the sites affiliated with the APA Holding was suspended by the company itself. An investigation has been launched.”

APA was a private agency but it held a privileged position in Azerbaijan, one of three news agencies – along with Trend and AzerTac – to have official access to Aliyev's events.

“The reality is that there is no media organization in the country that has a stable and legal guarantee,” said media expert Alasgar Ahmadoghlu in a Facebook post. “Even the institutions that claim to be the most stable can be eliminated within just a few minutes."

The Azerbaijani authorities have thus far remained silent about the incident. But a board member of the Public Television and Radio Broadcasting Company voiced his support for APA, which employed more than 200 journalists.

“If anything happens to APA, will we able to provide all these journalists with work? Of course not,” Azar Hasrat said in a Facebook post. “Therefore I hope APA is restored soon. We understand there was a mistake. They understood it too and immediately corrected it," he noted, adding: “the removal of a professional media platform like APA will in any case play into the hands of Armenia.”

Prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova also criticized the shutdown. “The government should not manage the media,” she said in a Facebook post. “I wish for my honest colleagues at APA to find a job that does not depend on the whims of the government.”

The shutdown had been preceded by rumors in Azerbaijani media circles that the agency would be closed.

Some media sources, speaking to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, said that discussions were underway to establish a new news agency under the Buta brand, managed by the Pasha holding company associated with the family of Aliyev's wife and the vice president, Mehriban Aliyeva. The out-of-work APA journalists would work there, according to these sources.

“A new opponent is coming to the market. His name is said to be 'Buta' News Agency. Let's see...!” wrote Tural Ibadli, a journalist with Report.az, a government-affiliated outlet, in a Facebook post.

Mahirgizi, APA's editor-in-chief, addressed the speculation in another Facebook post, on August 14. “I knew big games were being played with APA Holding. But I did not realize that those who created this game would play so openly and dirtily,” she wrote.

“Everyone involved in online media knows that during a day when 700-800 news stories are produced, these kind of mistakes might occur. Although it is impossible to justify it, unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid mistakes,” she wrote

She also implicated well-known pro-government journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, saying that he called her ahead of the closure and warned her that “APA's book is closing.”

Mahirgizi’s post came a few hours after Fatullayev published an article justifying the closure of APA, saying its mistake “might be understood by the new Armenian government, which has not yet formulated a clear concept on Karabakh, as a declaration of war.” Fatullayev also argued that some of APA's senior editors' social media posts made them sound like members of the opposition.