Baku, Azerbaijan - Azerbaijan's president this week approved the rules that will govern a media registry that the country's journalists warn could further stifle press freedom.
President Ilham Aliyev on Monday signed off on the "rules for maintaining a media registry" - a set of regulations around media credentials and official recognition that would provide approved media with privileges and benefits, such as accreditation to state and other bodies.
The rules lay out how the registry will work, the requirements journalists must meet to be eligible for inclusion, what data will be publicly available, and what conditions can result in being excluded or removed from the database.
The government-run Media Development Agency will oversee the registry and legal entities, and each individual included in it will be issued a certificate and journalistic license.
Zahid Oruj, chair of the Human Rights Committee of the National Assembly, told VOA that the adoption of the rules is to "continue the will for the formation of free, independent and strong press agencies that was outlined in the new power-building policy that has been implemented since 2019."
Journalists, however, have criticized the plan since parliament first passed the law in December 2021. They warn it could allow Azerbaijan's government to determine who is recognized as a journalist and cited concerns that the registry will include details on reporters and their work contacts.
Media outlets that operate in exile will also be affected, including through provisions that ban disseminating information from unofficial sources, rights groups including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent Turan News Agency, said independent media already work under restrictive policies and that access to information is difficult.
Instead of improving access to information, Aliyev believes the new media registry will restrict freedoms.
"It is intended to prevent establishment of new media agencies in the future and to create conditions for media outlets that are in the interests of the authorities,' Aliyev said.
Without an official license, journalists could find it harder to gain access to officials or events.
Lawyer and media rights expert Alasgar Mammadli said the registry would make it hard for many freelance journalists to obtain the information they need.
"I believe that keeping [a] journalist registry is an interference with media freedom," he told VOA.
Mammadli believes the registry goes against protections for freedom of expression, as laid out in Azerbaijan's constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
"According to the constitution, everyone can receive information. In other words, it is not important whether you have a title of a journalist in front of your name, or whether or not you are a state-qualified journalist," he told VOA. "In the future, any dispute related to this will result in the European Court making a decision against Azerbaijan."
But Azerbaijani officials have dismissed that criticism.
Oruj said journalists not on the register would still be able to work.
"Being included in this registry only gives advantages and makes it possible to benefit from various privileges, some subsidies, state measures," Oruj said.
RSF said nearly all Azerbaijani media are under government control. The few remaining independent voices find access to information difficult and say that some government agencies refuse to engage with them, according to the organization.
RSF ranks Azerbaijan 154th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, where 1 signifies the best media environment.
This story originated in VOA's Azerbaijani Service.