Authorities in Azerbaijan should immediately release three journalists detained on spurious charges while reporting on COVID-19 and stop abusing quarantine rules to silence criticism, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.
Over the past two weeks, courts have jailed three different journalists and detained another as they were reporting on the implications of the government’s lockdown measures, according to IPI research.
At least two more journalists have been harassed or assaulted by unidentified plainclothes men while interviewing opposition politicians and citizens.
The wave of police action against journalists darkens an already gloomy press freedom landscape in Azerbaijan under long-serving President Ilham Aliyev.
IPI Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes Oliver Money-Kyrle said the recent detentions and attacks mirrored a trend seen across the globe: that the pandemic had exacerbated crises in countries with already poor records on press freedom.
“The authorities in Azerbaijan are abusing measures aimed at tackling the spread of COVID-19 to throw critical journalists behind bars, exacerbating an already challenging environment for independent media”, he said. “Moreover, these detentions are putting the journalists at great risk by holding them in crowded prisons where the virus is expected to spread quickly.”
Detained for critical content
On April 13, Ibrahim Vazirov, a freelance journalist and blogger with Kanal24 Internet TV, was arrested in the city of Shirvan, days after police had demanded he delete online reports about COVID-19.
According to the Interior Ministry, he was arrested for disobeying a lawful request by the police and detained for 25 days. Vazirov had been producing video reports critical of the quarantine measures.
The same day, Reportyor.info journalist Mirsahib Rahiloglu was arrested in Shirvan for “violating quarantine rules” and detained for 30 days.
He had also been critical of the local authorities and published interviews with citizens expressing frustration at the lack of financial support during the lockdown, according to reports.
Earlier, on April 9, freelance journalist Natig Izbatov of online news outlet 7gun.az was arrested as he was filming interviews with people about the economic effects of the quarantine during an anti-government protest in Xirdalan, a city near Baku.
He was detained alongside another reporter Sevinj Sadigova, of Azel TV, who was taken to the police station but later released.
Isbatov was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating quarantine rules, despite having official documents which gave him permission to work as a journalist.
Speaking to IPI via messaging app, Izbatov’s editor-in-chief, Javid Shiraliyev, said his colleague was “repeatedly harassed” by police and later assaulted at the police station. Police also searched the journalist’s phones and deleted footage and recordings, he added.
“We consider the actions against our colleague Natig Isbatov illegal, and strongly condemn the government’s crackdown”, he said. “Free media in Azerbaijan is almost completely blocked and journalists are silenced.”
On April 17, journalist Tazakhan Miralamli of Azadlig newspaper, who is also a member of the opposition Popular Front Party (PFPA), was detained by unidentified plainclothes men shortly after he left the house of opposition leader Ali Karimli, whom he had just interviewed. The men confiscated his SD card before releasing him.
On April 20, journalist Teymur Karimov was physically assaulted by unknown men in Baku as he tried to interview residents about the economic implications of COVID-19 measures. His SD card was also stolen.
‘Fighting journalists instead of COVID-19’
Several journalists IPI spoke to also raised concerns over the government’s system for applying for press documents during the lockdown.
Under the current rules, all journalists working in the field must obtain special permits from the country’s Press Council. However, journalists claim the process is difficult and skewed to favour pro-government and state-run media, rather than independent outlets.
Since the quarantine was announced on March 24, authorities have waged a crackdown on sources of criticism, arresting journalists, “disappearing” activists and prosecuting opposition MPs.
Mehman Huseynov of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) in Azerbaijan told IPI that critical media outlets were under extreme pressure from authorities.
“Instead of fighting COVID-19, the government is fighting opposition leaders and journalists active on social media”, he said.
In his March 19 speech, President Aliyev called opposition groups “traitors and corrupt representatives of the fifth column” whose main aim to was “destroy Azerbaijan”.
Authoritarian suppression of media freedom
Over the last decade, Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003 and won every presidential election with around 80 percent of the vote, has gradually tightened his grip over the media space and overseen the persecution of critical journalists and bloggers. Several have fled the country, while those who remain often self-censor for fear of arrest.
The country has one of the highest number of journalists in jail in the region. According to IPI research, in addition to those jailed this month, five more journalists are currently behind bars.
They are Elchin Ismayilli, founder and editor of kend.info, an online portal reporting on corruption and human rights violations, Polad Aslanov, chief editor of independent news website Xeberman, and Araz Guliyev, chief editor of now-blocked religious news website Xeber 44.
They are joined by Ziya Asadli, a correspondent of the independent newspaper Azadliq, and Ikram Rahimov, editor-in-chief of online news website realliq.info.
In January 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) raised concerns over the situation of media freedom and safety of journalists in Azerbaijan.