Azerbaijan's Aliyev rejects criticism over journalists' arrests

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By Rachel More

BERLIN (Reuters) - Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev on Friday rejected criticism over the arrests of journalists and said the fact that people had access to the internet meant press freedom was assured.

"We must protect our media landscape from external negative influences, just like any other country, and everyone must comply with the laws," Aliyev told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a visit to Berlin.

"We have a free press and a free internet. If there is an internet in the country, then what kind of violation of press freedom can we talk about?"

It was the first time Aliyev had spoken publicly about the arrests, which have prompted strong concern from the United States, the European Union and press watchdogs.

The president, who was re-elected in February in a vote boycotted by two main opposition parties and preceded by a media crackdown, was pressed by a reporter from Germany's ZDF broadcaster on when his colleague Imran Aliyev would be free.

Aliyev is head of the Meclis.info outlet and had also worked for ZDF. He is currently behind bars on charges of smuggling.

Six others are in detention in connection with the case relating to the Abzas Media group. Police said last November they found 40,000 euros ($42,820) in cash in the media outlet's Baku offices.

Aliyev said media representatives "who illegally receive funding from abroad" had been arrested within the framework of the law.

Azerbaijan ranks 151 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, which accuses Aliyev of working to silence his critics in a media landscape dominated by state-controlled outlets.

"It is no secret that we see room for improvement, to put it that way," Scholz said when asked about whether the issue had featured in his talks with Aliyev.

($1 = 0.9341 euros)

(Reporting by Rachel More; additional reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)