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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Azeri Censors Told To Stop; Oh Hurrah!




Congratulations. You've made the front page of Bakinsky Rabochy," announced a girlfriend over the phone. "It means they approve of you."


She was laughing, but not wholly cynically. She was glad that in the climate of press censorship and near adulation of the president, a Baku paper was printing things from the Western press.


I stopped by a kiosk to pick up the dull, semi-official paper, once a pillar of communism and now faithful supporter of the present authorities.


They had printed a translation of an interview I had done with President Heidar Aliyev for The Financial Times. The translation by Itar-Tass in London was good, but the article itself had been censored and turned into an anodyne puff-piece.


The entire second part, which listed the extremely undemocratic facts of life in Azerbaijan, had been left out -- details like the political prisoners who are still in prison, the police brutality that continues unchecked, and the existence of censors who still inspect every article before it goes to print and often slash them or ban them completely.


The government, and Aliyev himself, deny that censorship exists, saying there is only military censorship, which is necessary since Azerbaijan remains technically at war with Armenia.


But that is not quite true. Earlier this year when a big scandal broke around the president's son, Ilham Aliyev, and his huge gambling debts, every single article touching on the subject was banned.


And then just last month the weekly newspaper Chag failed to appear on the newsstands after a whole article on Kurds in Azerbaijan was cut.


The editors did not have anything to put in its place so the whole paper was refused publication.


The censors do not like newspapers appearing with white spaces that of course would tell their own tale. The editor of the Popular Front's newspaper, Azadlig, keeps a pile of cartoons especially to fill blanks at the last minute.


I called up the editor of Bakinsky Rabochy to see what had happened with my article. The editor, Vladimir Moroskov, sounded relaxed on the issue.


"We shortened it a bit," he volunteered. "We left out the bits that everyone here already knows, like how Aliyev came to power. In England maybe you need to tell people that, but here everyone knows."


That was not quite true either but I let it go. The important thing here was that the editor, not the censors, had done the censoring.


It is important because this week two members of the presidential staff announced during a visit to the United States that within 10 days censorship would be abolished in Azerbaijan by official decree.


Azerbaijan is under pressure from abroad to improve its record on democracy in the run-up to presidential elections and, if the president's staff say it will be abolished, it probably will. So hurrah!


But as one opposition paper points out, censors are not really needed any more as self-censorship is so deeply ingrained. There are no live interviews on radio or television, for instance, and editors go by the policy of "just in case."


The government has many more subtle controls up its sleeve, such as licensing newspapers, the price and availability of newsprint, the courts, which recently closed and prosecuted a magazine for maligning the image of Azerbaijan, and straightforward intimidation of journalists.


Even without the censors, a free press will remain a far cry.