(Updates with U.S. State Department, OSCE)
By Lada Yevgrashina
BAKU, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Azerbaijan said on Tuesday foreign radio stations would no longer be allowed to broadcast on local frequencies, drawing criticism from the United States and Europe over media freedom in the oil-producing state.
Azerbaijan’s National Television and Radio Council said the ruling would enter into force on Jan. 1, 2009, terminating licences for the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Russian Evropa Plus.
The administration of President Ilham Aliyev is widely accused of stifling democracy and media freedom while presiding over an oil-fuelled economic boom in the former Soviet republic.
The National Television and Radio Council said broadcasting licences for foreign radio stations would not be extended beyond 2008, but the stations were free to broadcast via satellite, Internet or cable.
“We are not closing down foreign radio stations but we want their activities to be regulated according to international practice,” Ali Hasanov, head of the political department of presidential administration, told reporters.
The U.S. State Department said: “This decision, if carried out, will represent a serious setback to freedom of speech, and retard democratic reform in Azerbaijan.”
OSCE Freedom of Media representative Miklos Haraszti said: “Closing down FM news radio broadcasts that were among the few remaining sources of varied, public-service quality information is a serious step backwards for an OSCE democracy.”
He said the alternative broadcast means suggested by the authorities were unacceptable and unrealistic.
The media ruling comes as authorities seek to prolong Aliyev’s hold on power beyond 2013. Parliament last week backed an initiative by the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party to hold a referendum on March 18 on whether to scrap the two-term presidential limit.
Aliyev won a second five-year term in October in a landslide election faulted by European monitors as less than democratic.
The country has been dominated by the Aliyev family for more than three decades, first under former Communist boss Heydar Aliyev and since 2003 by his son Ilham.
The opposition accuses the West of toning down its criticism of Aliyev’s record on democracy for fear of losing influence over the country’s oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. (Additional reporting by Afet Mehtiyeva and Matt Robinson in Tbilisi; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Alison Williams)