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Azerbaijan threatens to muzzle independent radio

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"It would be naive to expect that [the press freedom issue] will eclipse the rest of America's strategic interest in the country," he says. "The US has already shown a serious commitment to its relationship with Baku: Azerbaijan has oil, borders with Iran, and has demonstrated that it is capable of repelling Russian efforts to make it anti-American."

Publicly, US officials have reproached Azerbaijan, saying relations could suffer if the threat is carried out. "Discontinuing [radio] broadcasts would send a disturbing message," says Robert Wood, deputy spokesman at the State Department.

Behind the scenes, however, top US officials are negotiating with their Azeri counterparts – including meeting directly with President Ilham Aliyev – to keep the broadcasters on the air.

The move to silence foreign broadcasters is the latest in a series of attacks on free press here. Ten journalists were imprisoned in 2008, many on charges of criminal defamation. Emin Huseynov, a journalist and media advocate, was hospitalized after the police detained and severely beat him. Authorities have never investigated the incident.

In its yearly press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 150 out of 173 nations. Even Russia, not known for liberal media policies, fared better with a ranking of 143.

Should Azerbaijan pull the licenses, Azerbaijani citizens will have almost no access to uncensored media, says Charles Rice with the International Center for Journalists. Unlike the local and state-owned media, the foreign stations "are not afraid to speak out about issues, including corruption and bribery that would never see the light of day otherwise," he says.

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