As a new wave of government-backed harassment appears to target investigative journalism in Azerbaijan, particularly in the case of Khadija Ismayil, who is being charged under "espionage legislation," the journalists and media right groups in Washington, DC raised concerns and encouraged their colleagues in Baku to keep up the good work.
The State Department and the Senate Foreign Affair Committee are silent about the current allegations of "espionage" that involve Ismayil and the US Congressional delegation; in the meantime analysts and former diplomats worry that the move would affect the bilateral relationship between the countries.
"The more all these, what I can only call "stupid steps", that the government has taken with respect to Khadija, accusing Congressional staffers of being spies, the more difficult it becomes to establish a strategic relationship with the country which is so out of sync with the standards that really have the underpin those kind of relationships going forward," Richard Kauzlarich, former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan (1994-1997) stated during a live briefing and Google+ hangout on "Investigative Journalism in Azerbaijan" launched by RFE/FL's Washington office, on Friday, TURAN's correspondent reports.
The events of last few days involving Khadija Ismail "raise questions on future of free and independent media in Azerbaijan," he said, adding that investigative journalism was in infancy stage during time of his service in Baku, yet even then journalists were attacked. What is different today, is that there are more sources of information that are available and it is much more difficult for the governments to sweep them under the rug.
The Washington event mainly focused on the problems of the investigative journalists and reasons to risk professional and personal retribution to expose official wrongdoing in such challenging circumstances.
"I've never imagined being a journalist that covers corruption: It wasn't interesting for me to write about corruption. I just love to do stories about people, their problems. But most of my stories turned out to be about corruption," said NushabeFatullayeva from RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service, who currently travels to the US with a program of International Center for Journalists.
One of her recent reports was originally intended to highlight the social problems of a small village in the western region of Gadabay, where the residents were complaining about "an English company" that was occupying their land. While digging the topic, the reporter said, she found out that the company that registered in London was directly connected to the president Aliyev's daughters. "After that story was published the local parliament changed the law, abandoning any access to the shareholders of such companies," she mentioned.
For Drew Sullivan, Editor at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), unlike many other countries, it's hard to figure out how the investigative reports affect internal politics in Azerbaijan: "For example, one of our stories in Bosnia led to resignation of the PM in the country. But inside the politics in Azerbaijan, we never really know:"
The OCCRP named President IlhamAliyev its 2012 "Organized Crime and Corruption Person of the Year."
Speaking about current situation, Sullivan said, the fact that the first family of Azerbaijan controls the economy and the money flow in the country, is "not actually new, but popularized." In Azerbaijan, Russia and other countries large businesses are directly in many cases connected to leaderships. "They're characterized by autocratic strongman, who controls their public primarily through controlling media, -- sometimes to nationalism and other tactics, -- they also coordinate the business in their country."
The Aliyev family's ties of sharing country's oil, telecom, instruction, banking and other industries, "kind of means of controlling the economy of the country," he emphasized.
While the government is targeting the investigative journalism, there are lots of local media in Azerbaijan that just "will not print such stories, while others are being used against the journalists."
Hans Staiger, Program Consultant at the International Center for Journalists, agreed: "It's very difficult to publish anything in Azerbaijan: Although it's not necessarily our job to put a pressure on the governments, what we do is publish what we find, but it is up to "others" to act."
Looking ahead, the panelists highlighted the importance of greater transparency in the country and urged journalists and the public to "make it an issue" in their activity.
"Because once the light is shining, you can't hide anything and that's what we need," Sullivan concluded.