The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the Azerbaijani government’s use of tax evasion charges to harass the Turan news agency, the last independent media outlet based in the country.
Turan reported on August 11 that tax officials accuse it of underdeclaring its profits since 2014 and are demanding more than 37,000 manats ($20,000) in back taxes and other fees.
“It was just a matter of time before the authorities targeted the last independent media outlet still operating in Azerbaijan,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Azerbaijani officials began a criminal investigation against Turan on August 7 and sent a tax inspector to the news agency’s offices the following day to begin an audit, Turan said.
Turan denies the allegations and has referred the matter to a Baku economic administrative court, pointing to many irregularities in the investigation including the fact that officials did not mention a recent audit — exonerating Turan — that was made in response to similar allegations.
“These proceedings are designed to cripple a respected news agency financially,” Bihr said. “We call on the authorities to end this systematic harassment of the last independent media voices and to drop the investigation into Turan.”
Created in May 1990 by journalists who did not want to work for the state media, Turan was one the Soviet Union’s very first independent news agencies and produces news in Azerbaijani, English, and Russian.
Turan was nominated for RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in 2014.
The Azerbaijani authorities have clamped down on independent media in the country in recent years, including the closure of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Baku bureau in late 2014.
The last opposition newspaper, Azadliq, was forced to stop producing a print edition in September 2016.