Kanal Turan: the tiny TV channel taking on oil-rich Azerbaijan

Paris (AFP) –


Under the spotlight in a studio in the French city of Strasbourg, an Azerbaijani TV anchor pins a microphone onto his lapel as he gets ready to present the news.

Kanal Turan, a station set up by an exiled journalist from Azerbaijan to document rights abuses and economic conditions in the former Soviet republic, is no ordinary news channel.

There are no technicians, camera operators or make-up artists.

The 56-year-old founder and star host, Ganimat Zahid, powders his own face in the studio he has built in a small city-centre apartment.

He also records and edits his slots which are fiercely critical of autocratic Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, who is seeking a fourth term in office in elections Wednesday.

It's a bare-bones operation but the studio is a step up for the chief editor of the opposition daily Azadliq, who fled Azerbaijan in 2012 after receiving death threats and started out filming his programmes in his kitchen.

Azerbaijan is ranked 162 out of 180 for press freedom by Reporters without Borders, which accuses Aliyev of a conducting a "relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014".

"The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished by the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists," according to Human Rights Watch.

Aliyev was first elected president in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.

He was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.

Kanal Turan has given voice to opposition calls for a boycott of what it calls this week's "fake" presidential election, which Aliyev called six months ahead of schedule.

Beamed into Azerbaijani living rooms by satellite, the network -- which claims to have between 300,000 and 500,000 viewers and has 116,000 Facebook followers -- also features interviews with Azerbaijani exiles, who cover its annual budget of 100,000 euros, according to Zahid.

"Azerbaijan may be an oil-rich state but there are lots of social problems. There are no pension plans and few jobs," he said.

"And there are no political freedoms, no civic freedoms, like freedom of expression or freedom of assembly," he added, setting out his editorial line.

A well-known regime critic, Zahid and his family fled Azerbaijan in 2012.

His first destination was Turkey, where his programmes about Azerbaijan were carried by Turkish networks available in Azerbaijan, and then to France.

After a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016 authorities closed down the network that had been broadcasting his programmes, forcing Zahid to come up with new ways of getting his message across.

A few months later, Kanal Turan was born in Strasbourg, home of the Council of Europe, a pan-European rights body which has been sharply critical of Azerbaijan's treatment of political dissenters.

- Citizen journalism -

Three of Zahid's colleagues from the Azadliq newspaper are currently behind bars, two of them convicted of hooliganism.

Reporters Without Borders slammed one of the hooliganism trials as a "sham", saying the journalist was charged for defending himself when attacked by a stranger.

Zahid claims he has been offered "lots of money" in exchange for his silence.

"But I always refused. It's a question of principle," he said.

While drawing on a network of professional journalists, Kanal Turan relies heavily on opposition activists to film rare anti-government demonstrations and Azerbaijanis complaining about their living conditions.

For Johann Bihr, spokesman on Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Reporters without Borders, the network's crew of citizen journalists are "people who ended up in journalism out of a desire to tell the truth about their living conditions".

But some have criticised Zahid's methods.

"People who support the opposition's ideas feel it's not professional journalism," Raphaelle Mathey, a researcher on Azerbaijan at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, told AFP.