Azerbaijan Must Release All Imprisoned Journalists


Posted: 03/02/2015 4:31 pm EST Updated: 03/02/2015 4:59 pm EST

It was a pleasant but humid May afternoon almost four years ago when
I stood on the balcony of the palace at Zagulba Bagları with Ilham
Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan. The Caspian Sea lay below,
placid and peaceful, symbolizing the bright prospects of the country.

We spoke about the future and about a new generation of Azerbaijani
— educated, energetic, young people who offered great hope and
opportunity to the nation.

We specifically talked about young people being what they are,
the value of a fully engaged and outspoken, even rebellious with
differing opinions — with the hope that the country inevitably would
morph into a modern, free and open society. For a time, there seemed
to be reason for optimism. We engaged in a number of joint efforts
and soon after my visit journalists and bloggers were released from
jail. There were moves to rewrite and liberalize laws. There was hope.

But fast forward to today. That hope has ended. Journalists and
free-expression advocates sit in Azerbaijani jails in record numbers.

Their lot is growing. Azerbaijan scores near the bottom of every
objective ranking of nations based on free media and free expression

So it came as no surprise when Swiss authorities confirmed earlier
this month that Emin Huseynov has been hiding out in its Embassy in
Baku since August when he narrowly escaped arrest.

Huseynov, 35, made a harrowing escape with police on his trail.

Authorities had already tried to raid the NGO’s headquarters and
searched the home of his mother, taking her computer.

Huseynov now cools his heels on diplomatic turf (out of the clutches
of police) while facing formal charges of tax evasion, illegal
business dealings and abuse of power. His real crime is running a
non-governmental organization, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom
and Safety, which defends journalists’ rights in a country where free
media is under constant assault.

Huseynov is far from alone in being prosecuted.

There are more than 10 members of the media, including journalists,
bloggers and social media activists, in prison today — one of the
largest numbers of any country that is part of the Organization for
Security and Co-operation in Europe. The lengths to which Azerbaijani
authorities will go to round up dissenting voices are troubling.

As the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media I have spoken out
on numerous occasions. Especially troublesome is the case of Khadija
Ismayilova, now in pre-trial detention, who was arrested in early
December on charges of inciting a person to commit suicide. Ismailova,
a reporter for Radio Azadliq, has been the target of an ugly sexual
smear campaign. In mid-February the all-too-common illegal business
dealings and abuse of power charges were added to her list of sins. In
addition, while in detention, she was found liable on controversial
criminal libel charges and a fine has been imposed on her.

Others sitting in prison or pre-trial detention on trumped-up charges
include Rasul Jafarov, a free speech advocate, on charges of abuse
of power and tax evasion; Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper
Azadliq, on a charge of hooliganism; Omar Mamedov and Abdul Abilov,
bloggers, on charges of illegal storage and sale of drugs; Parviz
Hashimli, a journalist, on charges of smuggling and illegal storage and
sale of firearms; Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of news
website, on various charges, including drug possession and inciting
hatred and Rashad Ramazanov, an independent blogger, on charges of
illegal storage and sale of drugs.

The systematic shutdown of dissenting voices and their outlets are
clear violations of commitments on free media and free expression
that Azerbaijan has signed on to as a participating State of the OSCE.

But most of the world appears disinterested as Azerbaijan clamps down
even harder on the country’s nascent media and civil society.

Is that analysis seems too facile? Is it simply a matter of business
interests trumping human rights?

Hence, a high-profile diplomatic row with the Swiss might shake
some countries from their somnolent state. Emin Huysenov, Khadija
Ismayilova and all other members of the media are now the face of
free media, free expression and civil society in Azerbaijan. They
have done nothing wrong — they are just doing a job. For this many
of them stand trial or have already been convicted.

Just four years ago it seemed to me that Azerbaijan had a promising
future for its media and civil society. Now, for free expression and
civil society advocates, the future is just black.

It is in the hands of President Aliyev to change course and fulfil
the dream of a modern, free and open Azerbaijan. Few, including me,
a friend of Azerbaijan, are willing to assume he will. But he must,
as the first step, let all journalists go. He must set them free. For
the future of democracy in Azerbaijan.

MijatoviÄ~G is the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.