WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Azerbaijani authorities have raided and closed the bureau of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in an apparent attempt to silence one of the country’s last independent media outlets, the station said on Friday.
It said in a statement that investigators and armed police had ordered employees into a room of the station’s Baku bureau while they ransacked a company safe and confiscated documents and official stamps.
The station said a court order had stated that the search was part of an investigation of the Azerbaijani Service of the station in connection with Azeri laws on foreign funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
RFL/RL, which made its name broadcasting into Russia and its communist allies during the Cold War, is funded by the U.S. government. Nenad Pejic, editor-in-chief and co-CEO of RFE/RL called the raid a “flagrant violation of every international commitment and standard Azerbaijan has pledged to uphold.”
“The order comes from the top as retaliation for our reporting and as a thuggish effort to silence RFE/RL.”
Pejic vowed RFE/RL would “continue our work to support Azeris’ basic right of free access to information and to report the news to audiences that need it.”
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but RFE/RL quoted an official of the department as expressing concern about the raid.
“We call on the responsible authorities to conduct a transparent investigation in keeping with the law and Azerbaijan’s international commitment to protecting media freedom,” it quoted the official as saying. Rights advocates accuse veteran Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s government of muzzling dissent and jailing opponents, charges it denies. The West has courted the former Soviet republic as an alternative to Russia as a supplier of oil and gas.
Kenan Aliyev, director of REF/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, said the raid was part of a campaign against independent media and NGOs that had included the arrest of Khadija Ismayilova, the host of a RFE/RL show.
Ismayilova, who has investigated government corruption, business dealings of the president’s family, and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, was detained this month on charges of inciting a person to attempt suicide after a former colleague at the radio station attempted to kill himself.
She has dismissed the accusations against her as “dirty and black” tactics. A social media campaign has been staged calling for her release.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Storey and Ken Wills