The reelection of President Ilham Aliyev, who silences all dissent, is assured without much suspense on 7 February 2024. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the wave of arrests of journalists that started on 20 November and calls on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is observing the election, to roundly condemn this frontal assault on the media.
The eight journalists placed in pre-trial detention include five who work for Abzas Media, an investigative news site that often covers corruption within Azerbaijan’s elites. This offensive against media personnel comes in the wake of a military operation that resulted in Azerbaijan gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist region whose mainly Armenian inhabitants were forced to flee to Armenia.
“This snap presidential election was supposed to mark the start of a ‘new era’ after the military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh but it has exposed tension within the Aliyev dynasty. Concerned about the loss of the war’s mobilising power, President Aliyev is trying to muzzle the few independent media still operating in Azerbaijan, whose reporting is liable to question his legitimacy. We urge OSCE member states to resist the Azerbaijani government’s economic pressure and manipulations, and to strongly condemn its attempts to eradicate access to trustworthy journalism.
Head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk
Voicing a range of concerns including “the high level of harassment targeting journalists,” the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed a resolution on 24 January suspending the Azerbaijani delegation’s activities for one year. A proposed new resolution reminds Member States that they have “a positive obligation to establish a sound legal framework for journalists and other media actors to work safely.” The Azerbaijani delegation responding by accusing the Assembly of “Azerbaijanophobia” and Islamophobia.
Arrests, mistreatment in prison, reprisals
Abzas Media was the first media outlet to be targeted. Its five detained journalists include director Ulvi Hasanli and editor Sevinj Vagifgizi, who have been unable to speak to their families since their arrests in November. Reporter Nargiz Absalamova says her access to medical care and hot water is restricted and that, in general, hygiene in her detention centre is appalling.
Fellow Abzas Media reporter Elnara Gasimova, who was arrested on 13 January, was brought into court with her hands cuffed behind her back and was denied access to a toilet before the hearing at which she was placed in pretrial detention. Deputy director Mahammad Kekalov’s disappearance for nearly three days after his arrest by plainclothesmen on 27 November triggered concern that he was being tortured.
The journalists with other media affected by this pre-election crackdown include Hafiz Babali, a business reporter for the independent news agency Turan Agentliyi, one of whose sons has been fired by the bank where he was due to start working on 1 January.
As they did with the Abzas Media journalists, the authorities have frozen the bank accounts of two other detainees, Aziz Orujov, the director of the YouTube news channel Kanal 13, and Shamo Eminov, a reporter who works for this channel. They have also blocked credit cards and suspended pension payments to members of their families.
One of the detained journalists, Kanal-13’s Rufat Muradli, was released after serving a one-month prison sentence, while another detained journalist, Shahin Rzayev, who works for JAMnews, a news site specialising in the South Caucasus, was released upon payment of a fine after one night in a police station.
Stifling independent media
All of the detained journalists are facing the possibility of up to eight years in prison on charges of “foreign currency smuggling,” which in their case means they are accused of receiving subsidies from foreign organisations. Funding by international donors has been banned since 2014 although it is impossible for independent media to prosper as the government controls advertising. Pro-government media meanwhile receive cash rewards and official subsidies.
So that their investigative reporting could continue in the event of their arrest, the staff of Abzas Media had passed all their latest research and information to the Forbidden Stories journalists’ network, which published it at the end of January.
The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan with an iron hand since 1993. When Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003, the persecution of independent media became one of the hallmarks of his regime. Independent media were also subjected to a wave of arrests before the last presidential election in 2018. The new media law that took effect in February 2022, which violates Azerbaijan’s international obligations, has restricted the media’s work even more.