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24 July 2023

Azerbaijan’s “National Press Day”

Azerbaijan celebrated its National Press Day on July 22, a day that is tied to the publication of an Azerbaijani language newspaper 148 years ago.

Azerbaijan’s “National Press Day”

Image: Mark Elliott

July 22 each year is celebrated in Azerbaijan as National Press Day (Milli Mətbuat Günü), not to be confused with World Press Freedom Day (May 3), which was proclaimed by the UN in 1993. The Azerbaijani version traces its roots back to the first publication of a bi-weekly newspaper called Akinchi (Əkinçi, meaning Ploughman) in 1875. It was launched on July 22 by Hasan bey Zardabi, a journalist and intellectual widely credited with a whole string of pedagogical-cultural firsts, including the initiation of a professional theatre performing in the local language. The paper was an enlightened attempt to reach a readership of Azerbaijani peasants in the Russian Empire. The decision to write in the Azerbaijani language, then written using Arabic script, was a break with tradition as most publications printed in the region at that time were in Russian or, particularly, Persian. 

The Russian authorities considered Akinchi politically ‘unreliable’ and Zardabi faced a series of hurdles in keeping it going. Within two years, it was closed during an era in which many Azerbaijani intellectuals were arrested for suspected anti-government activities. Zardabi himself was sent back to his home village, Zardab, in a kind of internal exile. Though he only really resumed journalistic activities after 1905, Zardabi’s work today is seen as an important milestone in the development of Azerbaijani as a language of mass communication. This year, the day took a more international twist as it coincided with a major forum at Shusha in Karabakh with members of the world’s press discussing contemporary challenges of mass media, notably the rapidly changing environment caused by AI.