Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media

Roberta Knoll

19 October 2020

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Khadija Ismayilova donates prize money to fund Azeri journalists

Photo Credit: Aziz Karimov


Azerbaijani investigative reporter pledges 10,000 euros to fund independent journalism for Nagorno Karabakh. Second prize winner Benjamin Best talked to ECPMF about the risks facing undercover reporters.


By Jane Whyatt


Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, one of the winners of the 2020 Leipzig Award for Freedom and Future of the Media, provided by the Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig, promised to use her prize money to support Azeri journalists. The ongoing war on Nagorno Karabakh has resulted in violations of press and media freedom and gruesome attacks on national and international teams reporting about the incidents.

Khadija Ismayilova referred to the fighting in her native land during her acceptance speech, which was relayed to the prize ceremony by videolink as she faces a travel ban after being released from prison. She stressed:

”In these tragic moments when civilians die on both sides, there is also hope that the rule of law and peace may come to the region and refugees can go back home.”

And she promised to save the 10,000 euros she has been awarded by the Media Foundation of the Sparkasse Leipzig, the founding organisation of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). The funds will be used to support professional journalists observing the rebuilding of Nagorno Karabakh after the conflict ends. She commented:

“The first thing they will need is independent investigative reporters.”

This is not the first prize money that Khadija Ismailova has given away in order to support investigative journalism in her home country of Azerbaijan. In 2013 she was awarded the Global Shining Light Award and, with her co-awardees gave the prize money to imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli. Khadija has been honoured, too, with the Allard Prize, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Secret camera in the bedroom

International acclaim followed her imprisonment for alleged tax irregularities. She endured a campaign of intimidation aimed at scaring her into dropping the investigations of corruption allegations that she was working on with the Sarajevo-based Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty, based in Prague, Czechia. Khadija’s enemies even secretly used a hidden camera to film her in bed with her boyfriend and published it online in an attempt to discredit her.

When she was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail, the intrepid reporter defiantly remarked that it would give her a chance to investigate corruption inside the Azerbaijani prison system. She was freed after serving less than half of her sentence.

Threats also haunt the other Leipzig Prize 2020 winner, German TV documentary-maker Benjamin Best, who specialises in sports betting and corruption in sport. Best and his crew had travelled to Qatar to the Middle Eastern state to expose the atrocious living conditions of migrant workers building the stadium and other venues for the 2022 Football World Cup.


Prize winner Benjamin Best tells us why he risks being banned or jailed


In an interview with ECPMF, Best recalled that the unlawful detention of his local fixer was a low point in the investigation. Yet he feels proud that his reporting was able to change the lives of people whose human rights were being abused.


ECPMF: Why do you feel that you need to take these risks?


Best: If I travel to countries where there is no press freedom, I go undercover. But there’s also a big risk for the people I work with. In Qatar somebody I worked with was arrested and had to spend a couple of days in jail. This is very concerning. It’s a big risk for people to open up and tell their stories and it shows how these people, like Qatar, deal with freedom of speech. They throw people into jail.


ECPMF: What did your documentary achieve?


Best: I met 125 workers from Nepal. They told me their passports were illegally confiscated. They did not receive their salary for up to eight months. They had no food, they lived in terrible camps. Through our reporting, they received their passports and they could travel home. So for the first time the world football organisation FIFA had to openly admit that there are also violations of international labour standards at World Cup construction sites. For these 125 people, that was a very big deal. Something like that doesn’t often happen, that you really have an impact with your reporting, that you can see and measure it.


ECPMF: What more could be done to protect journalists’ safety and rights?


Best: Put pressure on governments, to confront them with their laws against freedom of speech. It’s really important what your organisation is doing, and others. It’s so important to have freedom of the press. It’s a pillar of our democracy.


ECPMF: What does it mean to you to receive the Leipzig Prize for Freedom and Future of the Media?


Best: It’s such a great honour, just to be in the same categories as all those journalists who’ve won the prize in the past. It’s also a big honour for the people who trust me with their stories. I hope it also encourages people to come forward and tell their stories to me. It’s a huge personal reward, but I see it more as a tool to help me reach out to people.


From the construction camps of Qatar to the frontline of the fighting in Nagorno Karabakh, the investigative reporters Benjamin Best and Khadija Ismaylova are proving that brave journalism can change people’s lives for the better. The glow of publicity surrounding their latest awards will be reflected in practical measures to help victims of war and exploitation. It is in keeping with the spirit of Leipzig’s Peaceful Revolution of 1989, which inspired the Media Foundation of the Sparkasse Leipzig to create the Award.


A recording of the award ceremony is available on the website of Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig along with a recap of the evening (only in German).

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