Independent media in Azerbaijan are under unprecedented attack since a campaign of politically motivated arrests launched by authorities at the end of November. In the space of a few weeks, authorities have put more journalists behind bars than over the past decade.
On January 15, police in Baku detained independent journalist Shahin Rzayev, the latest target of a campaign of intimidation by the Azerbaijani government, which began with the detention of Abzas Media director Ulvi Hasanli on November 20, as IPI previously reported. While Rzayev was released within days, no fewer than 11 Azerbaijani journalists are still held in custody as part of the current wave of repression.
Their detentions took place in the context of the announcement of early presidential elections in Azerbaijan, to be held on February 7. The authoritarian incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, is poised to win, in a climate of near-total absence of legal political opposition.
“Smuggling of foreign currency”
Five of the arrested journalists are collaborators of independent online outlet Abzas Media and face various charges linked to alleged “smuggling of foreign currency” into Azerbaijan. The charges are based on the sole fact that police reportedly found 40,000 euros in cash at the outlet’s office.
Additionally, authorities have jailed two journalists linked to Kanal-13: its director, Aziz Orujov, and a former journalist with the outlet, Shamo Emin, eventually also charging both with “smuggling of foreign currency”.
Hafiz Babali, the economics editor of leading Azerbaijani news agency Turan, was also arrested on the same charges, on December 13.
On December 11, police also detained Teymur Kerimov, the founder and director of online outlet Kanal 11. The journalist is facing charges of extortion, which were also brought against Ibrahim Humbatov and Arshad Ibrahimov,the editors of Azer.info and Dunyaninsesi.az, respectively.
Several more activists and politicians were also put behind bars over the past two months on politically motivated charges.
“Emotional outrage” in journalistic community
While Azerbaijani journalists and civic activists are not unaccustomed to the harsh methods employed by local authorities, many were taken aback by the scale of the current crackdown.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before,” said Arzu Geybulla, an independent Azerbaijani journalist and writer based in Istanbul. She described the current crackdown as “massive” and said it will remain a serious obstacle for the future work of Azerbaijani independent media.
However, regardless of the current “emotional outrage” it has caused in the country’s journalistic community, many are committed to continue revealing abuses by local authorities, Geybulla told IPI.
The shock created by the recent arrests was shared by Orkhan Mammad, a journalist at Meydan TV, an exiled Azerbaijani news outlet, who told IPI that there was a “mood of depression” among Azerbaijani media workers in the country and abroad. Previous mass crackdowns were directed at NGOs and, in any case, never targeted “more than four-five people at a time,” Mammad said. This shows an intention to “completely silence” independent media ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, he added.
Meanwhile, those who are not in custody fear they are being followed, Mammad explained, saying that there was no knowing whom authorities would target next.
While the charges against the detained Abzas Media journalists are widely perceived as politically motivated, they were enabled by a new media law in Azerbaijan, which in practice banned foreign funding. “The adoption of the law preceded the [current] crackdown,” Mammad argued.
In any case, the current attacks on the media have all but eliminated the possibility for outlets such as Meydan TV to openly operate in Azerbaijan, the journalist said, adding that the crackdown would also have serious consequences on the economic viability of independent media, as “everyone [will be] afraid of advertising” with them and private sponsors will remain unavailable.
“Dismal record” in press freedom
According to human rights activist Anar Mammadli, the process through which independent journalists and activists are attacked in Azerbaijan nearly always follows similar, ready-made schemes.
“First, pro-government media organize campaigns of black propaganda, showing the victim as someone ‘implementing orders’ from abroad,” Mammadli said. “Your work is described as dangerous. Security forces open criminal cases, conduct arrests and formulate different types of charges. Then, they find a witness under pressure who confirms these charges. But everything starts with black propaganda campaigns.”
This scheme was in fact applied in the most recent wave of repression, with authorities also allegedly beating and torturing several of the arrested journalists, as well as subjecting them to other wrongdoings. Such facts were reported by Ulvi Hasanli and opposition figure Gubad Ibadoglu, among others.
“The aim of this process is to extract confessions,” Mammadli commented. “This is the main reason for the violence, [including also] hacking personal computers,” and other intimidation attempts, he explained.
“This regime is about crackdown and censorship,” Geybulla added, explaining that recent events simply “spoke of the reality of the leadership” of Azerbaijan, whose dismal record in respect of press freedom is nothing new.
A show of popularity
Abzas Media combined professionalism and influence presence in the country’s informational sphere, according to local journalists who spoke to IPI. In addition, the outlet investigated high-profile corruption cases, some of which were linked to the recent reconquest by Azerbaijan of Nagorno-Karabakh, Geybulla told IPI.
“No one was really putting out investigations like this from within Azerbaijan,” she explained. “As a result, the outlet was perceived as having revealed the “corruption behind the victory”.
She added: “When the thousands of [Azerbaijani] casualties of the  Karabakh war became known, and that the state failed to provide care for the relatives of those wounded, [president Ilham] Aliyev’s popularity began to fade.”
Abzas Media was widely perceived as a “vessel of truth”, Geybulla said, explaining that readers trusted revelations made by the website, as well as by several other outlets. “When a story was published [in such a source], the government usually responded to it.”
Weak reaction by international community
While the European Union and the governments of several Western countries were quick to condemn the persecution of journalists and political activists in Azerbaijan, this reaction was considered insufficient by representatives of the Azerbaijani media and human rights community contacted by IPI.
“Many court verdicts [in Azerbaijan] are later overturned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)”, explained Anar Mammadli, mentioning a prison sentence he had himself served on politically motivated charges between 2013 and 2016. However, Azerbaijan refuses to recognize the unlawful character of these detentions, he added.
As a first step, the international community should demand the implementation of ECtHR rulings and the payment of compensation to those unlawfully detained, Mammadli argued.
Additionally, relevant institutions should call on Azerbaijan to fulfill its commitment to free media, an independent judiciary and rule of law, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the long-time activist said.
Moreover, those directly involved in handing down unlawful sentences, especially judges, should be sanctioned by European countries, according to Mammadli, who argued that the current situation undermines the legitimacy of the Council of Europe as an organization of which Azerbaijan continues to be a member.
“Azerbaijan’s membership [in this structure] is an imitation of European values,” the activist concluded.
“Western governments refuse to see how far [Azerbaijan’s] government is ready to go in terms of crackdown,” Geybulla added in turn. As a result, there is a feeling of impunity for arrests of journalists, as Azerbaijan has suffered little to no repercussions for these actions on the international arena, she said.
“There are condemnations, but then it is business as usual,” the journalist concluded.
As of January 25, at least 11 Azerbaijani media workers remain behind bars due to their work, due to an ongoing crackdown by local authorities. IPI continues to demand their immediate release.