- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Last month, Washington Times reporter James Morrison wrote an item in his Embassy Row column about the nomination of Matthew Bryza as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. As Mr. Morrison noted, several human rights groups had previously questioned Mr. Bryza’s close ties to Azerbaijani leadership, and tough questions about his possible bias again surfaced during his recent confirmation hearing.

During the hearings, Mr. Bryza stated: “If confirmed, I will continue to encourage the government of Azerbaijan to move forward on key issues such as media freedom, freedom of expression, political pluralism, rule of law and civic participation.” Obviously, these are noble goals often repeated by U.S. ambassadors who are stationed in authoritarian countries, but Mr. Bryza’s past in Azerbaijan raises important doubts about his promises.

In 2007, the editor of the opposition newspaper Azadlig, Ganimat Zahid, and correspondent Agil Khalil were sued over an article titled “Azerbaijanis Paid for Matthew Bryza’s Wedding.” The article states that Azeri Economic Development Minister Haydar Babayev paid for a significant portion of Mr. Bryza’s wedding, which took place in Istanbul the same year. At the time, Mr. Bryza was the U.S. co-chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, the body tasked with mediating a peace deal for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both countries claim sovereignty over the region, and although a cease-fire has been observed since 1994, no agreement has ever been signed between the two governments.

In the year after the article was published, Azadlig correspondent Agil Khalil was the target of four murder attempts, and in July 2008 - no longer able to deal with the constant threats against him - he fled to France, where he remains to this day. Mr. Khalil cannot return to Azerbaijan because he fears for his life.

There is no doubt that Mr. Bryza’s experience in the region could be valuable for improving relations between the United States and Azerbaijan, but we think that because he has been involved in a complaint and suit against a newspaper, his credibility within Azerbaijani civil society and his stated commitment to press freedom can easily be questioned.

Moreover, Mr. Bryza was very much criticized and questioned about his position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an extremely sensitive and taboo subject in Azerbaijan. Reporter and editor Eynulla Fatullayev remains in jail for writing about the subject in a way that displeased Azerbaijani officials. A respected journalist recognized as a political prisoner by the international community, Mr. Fatullayev was the editor of two newspapers that since have been closed down, the weekly Realny Azerbaijan and the daily Gundelik Azerbaijan. Arrested in 2007, he was convicted the following year on charges of “insulting the honor and dignity of the Azerbaijani people,” refusing to pay taxes and making “terrorist threats.” The last charge resulted from an article that accused the Azerbaijani armed forces of sharing responsibility with their Armenian counterparts for the deaths of hundreds of civilians during an attack by Armenian troops in 1992 on the village of Khojali in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Re-elected in October 2008 with 89 percent of the vote, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev reinforced his control of the country’s destiny even more in 2009 by abolishing any limit on the number of terms he can serve. The latest development of note has been the adoption of amendments to the press law imposing additional curbs on journalists, including draconian limitations on the ability to take photos. The first sign a country is reforming its policy in a democratic way is to let journalists do their job properly, as a sign of transparency.

As Mr. Aliyev continues to crack down on the press and freedom of speech, a nominee who can easily be identified as a strong supporter of the Azerbaijani government might indeed undermine the U.S. government’s stated goal of improving democracy and human rights in the country.

If the Bryza appointment is confirmed, let us be honest enough to say that it is not one of the priorities of President Obama’s administration to improve media freedom or the right to freedom of expression in the country. Apparently, the administration prefers to focus on U.S. energy investments. But without journalists properly doing their job, the United States will never know what their investments are used for.

Jean-Francois Julliard is general secretary of Reporters Without Borders, where Clothilde Le Coz is the Washington director.