Azeri journos, exiles and families threatened amid crushing of independent media

by Ana Ribeiro

Rights violations in Azerbaijan – including against dissidents living in exile and their relatives at home – are intensifying and setting off loud alarm bells among the international community. It’s feared that the regime’s actions threaten the fragile state of independent media in the former Soviet country.

Although Khadija Ismayilova - the most high-profile Azeri journalist to be jailed in recent times - has been released after 538 days behind bars, the situation remains perilous for her and other investigative reporters and critics of the regime. Last month, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan upheld Ismayilova’s conviction on charges of “illegal entrepreneurship,” denying her cassation appeal.

Khadija Twitter Screenshot from Khadija Ismayilova's Twitter account.

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), “at least 12 journalists, bloggers and media workers” were in jail in Azerbaijan in February 2017. It specifically mentions that the print edition of the lone Azadliq opposition newspaper has been paralysed since Azeri authorities jailed its finance director Faiq Amirov last August. They have interrogated multiple other staff members after the arrest of Amirov, who is accused of having ties to the Turkish opposition Fethullah Gülen movement, said to also be present in Azerbaijan.

Further, RSF referred to journalist Elchin Ismayilli, detained on charges of extortion and abuse of power he says “were fabricated with the aim of silencing his local news coverage”. Ismayilli had reported for multiple independent news outlets in Azerbaijan, until he founded his own investigative news website, He has been repeatedly persecuted and attacked by local authorities.

Crackdown on internet media

Azerbaijan was placed among the 18 worst offenders in the World Press Freedom Index 2016.

RSF, which publishes the index, gives a nutshell view of Azerbaijan’s scenario in explaining its ranking at position 163. It states that the regime of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev curbs independent media via economic means or force. Local authorities even harass the relatives of those who persist in their outspokenness – sometimes as a way of retaliating against their continuing activism in exile.

Azeri authorities have been increasingly oppressing blogs and other independent media online, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ):

The internet, albeit slow and expensive in Azerbaijan, has provided journalists and bloggers with more opportunity for freedom of expression and dissent than traditional media.”

The CPJ adds that journalists can be sentenced to pay hefty fines and up to three years in prison for writing a report deemed to have insulted the Azeri president; and that criticising the president on social media or using a pseudonym could lead to a two-year jail term.

Azeri authorities also use other accusations, such as gun or drug possession, to put dissenters away for a long time. Rashad Ramazanov, a blogger known for his criticism of the government, has been serving a nine-year prison sentence since May 2013 – including a stint in solitary confinement – and has recently been in poor health. 

Meanwhile, the Azeri regime regularly monitors independent media and bloggers’ activities abroad and has even co-operated with a fellow former Soviet country in getting them punished. The CPJ has condemned the Belarusian Supreme Court’s ruling “to extradite Russian-Israeli blogger Aleksandr Lapshin to Azerbaijan to stand trial [with a minimum sentence of eight years in prison] for travelling to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and for criticising Azerbaijani policies.”

Azerbaijan alarm_900X600 Azeri authorities' crackdown on independent media, at home and abroad, has been raising alarm bells amid the international community. (Photo: public domain)

Regime hits exiles where it hurts the most – family

When the hands of the regime cannot directly reach dissenters, it resorts to other tactics. Freedom House – which receives funding from the U.S. government to keep tabs on countries’ political developments – reports that last month, Azeri authorities detained 10 relatives of Ordukhan Babirov, a blogger currently based in the Netherlands, and those of Germany-based rapper Jamal Ali.

According to the independent media platform Ministry of Counterculture, authorities held Ali’s mother, uncle and two of his cousins in Azerbaijan for four days, over a song he posted on YouTube.

“The song ‘Heykal Baba’ (Grandfather Monument) is dedicated to two young activists who were sentenced to 10 years in prison for drawing graffiti on the monument to Azerbaijan's former president Heydar Aliyev, the father of the country’s current president Ilham Aliyev,” says the platform. “The video quickly reached 100,000 views on YouTube. (…) The musician says he received threats that about 40 of his relatives might lose their jobs, be thrown into jail or banned from leaving the country if he didn’t delete the video from his YouTube channel.”

Ali has been in exile in Berlin since fleeing Azerbaijan in 2012, after reportedly being arrested and tortured when protesting the Eurovision Song Contest’s Baku event.

Arzu Geybullayeva – renowned journalist and political analyst – also said her relatives have suffered intimidation back in Azerbaijan, due to her work for Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos in Istanbul. The related hate speech and death threats against her spilled over to name-calling and violent threats against her immediate family; it scared her brother into begging her to stop reporting.

Refusing to back down

Labelled a traitor because of the hostile situation between Azeris and Armenians, Geybullayeva has felt unable to return to her country. But despite all her troubles, she has kept on reporting, blogging and tweeting about the social and political situation in Azerbaijan and elsewhere from exile.

Geybullayeva wrote a blog post last month referring to the cases of activists being detained and the families of Babirov and Ali being threatened. In contrast, she noted, stands President Aliyev’s simultaneous appointment of his own wife Mehriban as vice-president.

“It is [a] pretty easy system – you are from the family, you get pampered, you get to do what you want, but if you are not... then it is a whole other story. (…) Yes, it is good to be part of the Aliyev family and be untouchable.”

Meanwhile, Fox-TV Turkey was taken off the air in Azerbaijan for mocking and questioning the president’s wife being made his vice president – the first person to hold that post in the country. In light of Azerbaijan’s situation, the ECPMF has campaigned to get Mehriban Aliyev removed from her role as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions.

The range of topics that journalists and broadcasters are allowed to discuss in or about Azerbaijan keeps on dwindling, although other journalists have managed to continue their work on Azeri issues from abroad.

Some of them have organised into online platforms, such as Meydan TV. The outlet’s team members live in places like Berlin and Washington, D.C., and bring in a variety of experiences of oppression. Founder Emin Milli told the ECPMF:

The government is treating independent journalists in Azerbaijan as enemies of the people. We or our relatives are jailed, tortured or killed. Our response has always been very peaceful." 

Publishing in Azeri, English as well as Russian, Meydan TV aims to “provide a platform for open and diverse discussions on all topical issues concerning Azerbaijani society [and] to build up a thriving independent online multimedia media platform.” The best way to respond to the Azeri regime's persecution is to keep going, Milli added:

"Increasing the audience and expanding in the face of repression is always the best answer to this, and we have done it for the last 4 years. Today we are reaching up to 25% of people in Azerbaijan on a monthly basis."


You can keep up with media freedom violations in Azerbaijan and other countries in Europe and beyond daily via the monitoring platform Mapping Media Freedom.