Washington, D.C. — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reports persistent campaigns of intimidation against two of its Radio Azadliq journalists, Khadija Ismayilova and Yafez Hasanov, in retaliation for their reporting. The threats to these Azerbaijan Service reporters come days before a UN-mandated review of Azerbaijan’s human rights performance and months ahead of presidential elections that President Ilham Aliyev has pledged will be free and fair.
In a return to the defamation tactics that targeted Ismayilova in March 2012, on April 25 a pro-government website posted a pornographic video that was fabricated to portray Ismayilova engaging in sexual acts. Ismayilova’s investigative reports for RFE/RL, which earned her the 2012 International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” award, have implicated the president’s family in financial activities and arrangements worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Over the past two weeks, Hasanov, who was abducted and threatened in Naxichivan in August 2011 following his investigation into the death of Turac Zeynalov and who was threatened by text, email and social media in November 2012, has been targeted in new incidents that he believes are intended to silence him.
On April 4, a package was sent to Hasanov’s home with documents that suggested he was having illicit relationships with several women. Soon after, Hasanov received a call from a man who identified himself as an agent of the Naxichivani Ministry of National Security (MNS), who recited orders from Naxichivani regional governor Vasif Talibov to cooperate with MNS. The caller also warned that if Hasanov reported on Naxichivan again he would be “exposed” and his life and the lives of his family members would be in danger. On April 19, the pro-government Internet TV station “Ses” aired recordings of cellphone conversations between Hasanov and residents of Naxichivan that Azerbaijan’s Media Rights Institution told the website contact.az could only have been obtained from the country’s security services.
In addition, three close relatives of Radio Azadliq’s Baku Bureau Chief Babek Bagirov were dismissed from their jobs on April 11, an act Bagirov said was reprisal for his work and as an effort to intimidate him and other bureau employees.
Azerbaijan Service Director Kenan Aliyev called these latest attacks shameful and said, “An attack against Khadija and Yafez and any of our journalists is an attack against the entire Radio Azadliq staff and an attack against all independent voices in Azerbaijan. ”
“These are actions of a deliberate and serious nature that the Azeri authorities must take very seriously, especially since many directly or indirectly suggest the involvement or endorsement of official Azeri entities and agents,” said Kevin Klose, Acting President and CEO of RFE/RL. “Yafez and Khadija are exercising their rights and professional duties as journalists and, as a journalists, their well-being is a matter of public and societal concern. I urge the Azeri authorities and President Aliyev personally to take steps immediately to stop the threats.”
Naxichivan, an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, is an exclave bordered by Iran to the west and Armenia to the east, and Radio Azadliq is one of the only media organizations reporting on the region.
Azerbaijan will hold presidential elections in October in which President Ilham Aliyev will run for a third consecutive term. A joint statement issued in March by the Committee to Protect Journalists and leading international press freedom and human rights groups condemns the recent imprisonment of at least seven journalists in Azerbaijan, criticizes recent government attempts to restrict local press freedom groups and on-line expression and warns that such a crackdown threatens the integrity of the October polls.
Freedom House characterizes Azerbaijan as “not free” and ranked it 172 out of 197 countries surveyed in its 2012 Freedom of the Press Index. The Reporters Without Borders 2013 Press Freedom Index placed Azerbaijan at 156 on a scale of 179 countries.
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs — radio, Internet, and television — reach influential audiences in 21 countries, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the republics of Central Asia. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).