Media outlets in Azerbaijan routinely deal with torture, assault, raids, imprisonment and endless intimidation, as verified reports submitted to Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project show.
“The years-long crackdown on the independent press by the regime of Ilham Aliyev has accelerated in recent months. This is clearly one of the world’s worst environments for press freedom and, consequently, for the public’s right to information,” Hannah Machlin, project manager for Mapping Media Freedom, said.
International media freedom rankings confirm the country’s stagnating record where autocratic repression is consistent, if not the functioning political system itself. Although authorities continue to claim that the majority of the country’s 147 political prisoners are criminals, religious radicals and tax evaders, the international community of rights watchdogs view it differently. A new wave of attacks against media freedom advocates, journalists and activists within the past two months alone illustrate a place where the primacy of Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, and his word overrides the primacy of the words of others, particularly his critics.
One such critic, Afgan Mukhtarli, an investigative journalist, disappeared on 29 May while on his way to his home in Tbilisi. Mukhtarli reappeared the next day across the border in Azerbaijan and was accused of illegal border crossing, smuggling (police allegedly found €12,000 on him) and resisting police. He was immediately sentenced to three months in pre-trial detention.
Speaking to Mapping Media Freedom, Mukhtarli’s wife Leyla Mustafayeva said she was relieved when she heard news of his arrest because after reporting her husband missing the day before, she had assumed he was dead. However, that is the only relief Mustafayeva has had since her husband’s kidnapping:
“I have no hope for the investigations. They have been stalled. They don’t want to investigate. Police allegedly cannot find any footage. The only video that was made available to our lawyer was shown two weeks after Mukhtarli’s disappearance and it’s just of my husband getting on the bus that usually takes him home.”
Mukhtarli’s case is unique in that his is the first cross-border operation alleged to be carried out in tandem with the Georgian government. While this has yet to be confirmed by officials in Georgia, Azerbaijani lawmaker and a member of the Parliament Human Rights Committee Elman Nasirov claimed Mukhtarli’s kidnapping was “the most successful operation carried out in recent years.” Nasirov also accused Mukhtarli of being a member of a far larger anti-Azerbaijan network.
“Muktharli was assigned to carry out subversive activities in Azerbaijan,” Nasirov asserted, claiming that as a preventive mechanism, Azerbaijani special forces made necessary arrangements with Georgian special forces. “The are principles and rules for this. Based on security principles, this how it was made possible to bring Mukhtarli to Azerbaijan,” said Nasirov in an interview with Azadlig Radio, the Azerbaijani service for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.
Police have questioned political activists, members of opposition parties, and journalists as part of the investigation. Sevinc Vagifqizi, a freelance reporter, was detained while waiting for news outside the state border services where Mukhtarli was being held. Speaking to journalists after her brief detention, Vagifqizi said that police allegedly thought she was going to disturb peace outside the building. Other journalists who have been questioned in the case of Mukhtarli are investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who is facing a travel ban despite her release from jail, and, more recently, Aytac Ahmadova.
The circumstances of Mukhtalri’s arrest were notably suspicious. Outside of his abduction, Mukhtarli’s lawyer was also quick to report on the injuries Mukhtarli suffered, including a broken nose, multiple bruises and possibly a broken rib. Mukhtarli is not the only journalist who appears to have been subjected to alleged police brutality. Nijat Amiraslanov, a member of the NIDA civic movement and an independent journalist based in Gazakh, reportedly lost his front teeth while serving his 30-day administrative detention. In his statement, however, Amiraslanov said his teeth fell out on their own, and that there was no ill-treatment during his detention. After Amiraslanov’s teeth fell out, the journalist refused an appeal filed by his lawyer. Amiraslanov was released on 21 June after completing the detention period.
In another show of force, police raided the office of independent online television channel Kanal 13 on 3 June, confiscating computers and other documents. Police had already detained the channel’s manager Aziz Orucov (Garashoglu) earlier in May. Orucov was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention on the grounds of allegedly resisting police. Additional charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power were brought against Orucov on the day of his release. He was sentenced to four months in pre-trial detention.
While these men await trial, another journalist and editor-in-chief of the news website Journalistic Research Center (jam.az) Fikrat Faramazoglu was sentenced to seven years in jail on 14 June. Faramazoglu was found guilty on charges of extortion. In his defence statement, the journalist said it was his reporting on a chain of brothels that were protected by the law-enforcement agencies that incited his arrest. Faramazoglu was also banned from working as a journalist for two years following the completion of his prison term.
A classic case of revolving door policy
Rather than continue to release its political prisoners, the Azerbaijani government continues to arrest more reporters and further tightens controls on the media sector.
“There are some ten journalists and bloggers currently in prison [in Azerbaijan]. Based on these new arrests, Azerbaijan is trying to return to the list of countries where journalists critical of the government end up in jail on bogus charges,” said Muzaffar Suleymanov from the Civil Rights Defenders, a Stockholm-based rights watchdog in an interview with Mapping Media Freedom. Furthermore, a recent decision by a Baku court to block access to independent and opposition news websites broadcasting from abroad is a matter of more concern, added Suleymanov.
Levan Asatiani from Amnesty International echoed these sentiments adding that, as an international community of watchdogs, they have not seen any improvements, only a further deterioration in the human rights situation in Azerbaijan.
“While there have been releases, there have been new arrests or travel bans introduced against former prisoners of conscience,” Asatiani said. There are also legal boundaries in place that prevent the work of remaining independent civil society organisations in Azerbaijan.
It is no longer enough to make statements and express concern says Suleymanov. The Council of Europe should hold its members responsible for violating human rights while the EU must set benchmarks in accordance with the human rights situation as it negotiates a new agreement with Azerbaijan, noted Asatiani.