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Azerbaijan Cracks Down on the Free Press, Again

Early one morning last month, Ulvi Hasanli, the director of Abzas Media, an independent news organization in Azerbaijan, got in a taxi to the airport when, he alleges, masked men blocked the vehicle, ejected him from it, and punched him in the face. He was taken to a local police station and detained. Sevinj Vagifgizi, the editor in chief at Abzas, told reporters that Hasanli had been arrested in retaliation for the outlet’s reporting on government corruption; hours later, she was arrested as well. Around the same time, Mahammad Kekalov, another Abzas staffer, went missing; it later transpired that he, too, had been detained. Before November was out, masked police officers also showed up at the home of Aziz Orujov, the director of an online broadcaster called Kanal 13. His wife alleged that the officers treated him like a “terrorist.” Officially at least, his crime was building a home on land that was not registered in his name.

This wasn’t the end of the arrests for people connected to Abzas and Kanal 13: police later detained Nargiz Absalamova, a journalist at the former outlet, and Rufat Muradli, a host on the latter. Muradli was sentenced to thirty days in jail on hooliganism charges (he was accused of shouting obscenities in public, but his lawyer says he was arrested without any explanation); the other journalists were ordered detained for at least three to four months as they await trial. Karol Luczka, of the International Press Institute, told Voice of America that he had never seen so many members of the press arrested in such a short time anywhere in the region. Anar Mammadli, a political analyst, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the government of Ilham Aliyev, the autocratic president, is “very vulnerable to serious claims of corruption,” and that Abzas’ investigations risked sapping its “political capital.” 

The arrests have a geopolitical context: in September, Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh, a long-disputed, largely Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan’s recognized borders, driving much of the population into neighboring Armenia. As Mammadli told RFE/RL, no little of Aliyev’s “political capital” stems from a prior successful offensive in the region in 2020; as the same outlet notes, Abzas’ recent reporting on official corruption included allegations related to graft in territory that Azerbaijan reclaimed in that fighting. Gulnoza Said, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told VOA that by arresting reporters, Azerbaijan may be sending a message of domestic media control to countries that have expressed support for Armenia.

In late November, following the arrests of the first three journalists from Abzas, Azerbaijani officials summoned diplomats from the US, France, and Germany, and accused them of illicitly funding the outlet—indeed, the official charges against its journalists seem to revolve around the claim that they bought illegal foreign donations into the country. (Police say they found the equivalent of around forty thousand US dollars in cash at Abzas’ offices; staffers have suggested that the money was planted there.) Separately, loyalist media has accused the US of using Abzas and other organizations to undermine the Azerbaijani government, accusing the “American provocation machine” of “holding the strings” of “gangs,” according to RFE/RL. USAID, the US development agency, acknowledges that it has provided training to Azerbaijani journalists, but insists that it has done so transparently. It denied the other claims.

This year, I’ve covered a range of threats to the world’s media, including the erosion of press freedom in the former Soviet Union, growing efforts there and elsewhere to punish and stigmatize newsrooms that receive foreign funding, the abuse of invasive spyware, the broader exportation of censorship across international borders, and the limitations—and dangers—of covering wars. All of these trends find at least some echo in the media environment in and around Azerbaijan—sometimes to a shocking extent. And yet the country often goes under the radar in the global conversation around press freedom—even as watchdog groups diligently track its decline in the country and officials sometimes lash out at them in response.

These groups often trace Azerbaijan’s crackdown on the free press to 2014, when, according to CPJ, “a series of raids, arrests, and criminal investigations against independent media and press freedom groups” began. The country was hardly a haven for press freedom before that; by the time of elections in 2018, CPJ was reporting that Azerbaijan had silenced critics in an “industrious and methodical way,” and was among the world’s worst jailers of journalists. (Not that Aliyev’s approach was all stick—per CPJ, his regime also offered reporters free apartments.) In 2022, officials implemented a restrictive new law that targeted outlets that receive foreign funding or operate from exile (as has happened elsewhere in the region), and reportedly mandated that all journalists join an official register, requiring them to hand over information including their work contracts and bank details. Officials reportedly also proposed punishments for outlets whose reporting they did not find to be “objective,” or that contained curse words. To stay on the register, news sites would have to publish twenty stories per day.

Press freedom has also come under threat as a result of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh; Reporters Without Borders notes that tensions over the enclave have provided “an additional pretext for censoring the media.” Covering the area has sometimes been dangerous: during the fighting in 2020, at least six journalists were injured, four of whom—including a pair from Le Monde—were hurt in shelling that Armenia blamed on Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan countered that Armenia put the journalists in harm’s way); in 2021, two staffers from Azerbaijan’s state media were killed when a landmine exploded near the enclave. Access to the enclave has also been restricted, by both Azerbaijani and Armenian officials. (Overall, RSF rates Armenia much higher for press freedom than Azerbaijan, which is currently in the bottom thirty countries globally on an index that the group maintains; Armenia, by contrast, sits just below the US.) Journalists entering Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia have been publicly blacklisted by Azerbaijan. Journalists entering via Azerbaijan have found their movements restricted.

Earlier this year, RSF warned that the enclave was fast becoming “a news and information black hole”—Azerbaijani “activists,” whose presence is believed to have been orchestrated by the Azerbaijani government, blocked a key road into Nagorno-Karabakh. Only loyal media were allowed to cover the supposed demonstrations. A Spanish journalist who visited the area told RSF that he was watched by minders from Azerbaijani state media, who, he said, subsequently misquoted him in articles as saying that the road wasn’t blocked. During the recent Azerbaijani offensive, independent Armenian journalists based in Nagorno-Karabakh were among those forced to flee. The New York Times spoke with a fleeing man who had just burned decades of video tapes that he’d made of the area. He said he feared being pursued as an Armenian spy.

Dissidents beyond Azerbaijan’s borders have faced sharp threats and repression in the past. The country has been accused of abducting at least one exiled journalist and repatriating him to face prison time; in 2017, a journalist with an opposition-leaning broadcaster reported being detained and physically attacked while scoping out a possible new office in Ukraine. Around the same time, I reported for CJR that the state of Azerbaijan was suing two French journalists in French court after they labeled the country a “dictatorship”—a strikingly novel suit (states don’t, and often can’t, sue individuals beyond their borders) that was eventually thrown out. In 2021, an expansive transnational investigation into the abuse of Pegasus, a potent Israeli-made spyware tool, led off with the case of Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani journalist who—having been jailed and subjected to a secret recording of her sex life in her home country, among other forms of harassment—went into exile, only to discover that her phone had been compromised. The same investigation found more than forty Azerbaijani journalists on a leaked list of potential targets of Pegasus, which is sold to state actors. The phone of Vagifgizi, the now-jailed editor of Abzas, was among several that were confirmed to have been hacked.

Last week, the US nonprofit Freedom House released a report detailing the “escalating transnational repression” of exiled journalists. Among the stories the group included was that of Mahammad Mirzali, an Azerbaijani opposition activist and vlogger who has lived in France since 2016. In 2020, someone shot at his car; the following year, Mirzali was repeatedly stabbed in the city of Nantes, where he lives. His assailants tried to cut out his tongue. Mirzali survived; he now keeps an ax in his apartment, rarely sleeps at night, and only goes out with police protection, according to a recent profile in the newspaper Ouest-France. He has said that he receives thousands of threatening messages per day, sometimes from Azerbaijani officials. French officials have investigated at least eight people for threatening Mirzali, including a pair who were arrested last year with a gun in their possession and his address in their car sat navs. (Aliyev’s government has denied any involvement in the threats to Mirzali.)

Aliyev, who first inherited power from his father in the early 2000s, isn’t going anywhere soon. Last week, he called snap elections for early in the new year, an apparent attempt to capitalize on the victory in Nagorno-Karabakh that also made further sense of the recent wave of arrests of journalists. “Ilham Aliyev, in the environment of mass arrest and repression, isolation from the democratic world, and in a situation where there are no minimal opportunities for elections, has set up a sudden election spectacle and intends to extend his personal power,” an opposition leader said. Not that Aliyev is that isolated. As COP28, a United Nations climate summit, began to wrap up in Dubai this week, it was confirmed that next year’s edition will take place in Azerbaijan—despite the country’s booming fossil-fuel industry, and deteriorating treatment of the press.

Source : CJR