BAKU | On 7 March, Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist known for her investigative work on the ruling Aliev family and other high government officials, received a package containing six photographs of herself. The shots were of an intimate nature and were accompanied by a note. “Behave,” it read. “Otherwise you will be disgraced.” The photos were also sent to two opposition newspapers, Yeni Musavat and Azadliq, which did not publish them.
A freelance correspondent and radio host for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku, Ismayilova made her name reporting on corruption and money laundering. Last summer, one of her articles, published on the RFE/RL website, reported on suspicious business dealings linked to President Ilham Aliev’s family. She is convinced the blackmail threat is related to her investigative work.
“I expected it to happen,” she said a few days after receiving the package. “This is the first direct threat I’ve gotten, but it’s not going to stop me. They should be embarrassed about it, not me.”
On 14 March, the threat appeared to escalate: a video showing Ismayilova engaged in sexual activity was posted on a site that had been created several days earlier and was falsely identified with Yeni Musavat.
Ismayilova took the matter to Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry and the chief prosecutor in Baku. The prosecutor’s office sent the case to the ministry, according to spokesman Eldar Sultanov. Interior Ministry spokesman Ehsan Zahidov said the case has been “sent to the appropriate organization of the ministry for investigation.”
Ali Hasanov, a political adviser to the president, denounced the video and said its distributor must be found and tried.
Another presidential aide, Elnur Aslanov, said, “Releasing a video about someone’s private life is absolutely unacceptable, regardless of that person’s religion, political views, sex, or profession.”
Amnesty international and media freedom group Reporters without Borders have joined in the chorus of condemnation.
Ismayilova’s standing in the Baku press corps, her vocal response to the threat – she posted a defiant message on Facebook the day she got the package – and the government’s reaction have given the incident a high profile. But journalists and independent observers here say it is only the latest in a long and escalating series of threats to reporters’ security in Azerbaijan.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 50 Azerbaijani and foreign journalists were harassed or attacked in the country in 2011. In its 2011/2012 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 162nd of 179 countries.
Rashid Hajili, an attorney and head of the Institute of Media Rights in Baku, said threats and violence against journalists have brought little official action. “In the last seven years, 300 criminal cases were registered. Only two were investigated,” he said.
“The government is not interested in investigating criminal acts against journalists,” said Elesger Memmedly, an independent researcher on media issues. “If the government is unwilling, it’s not possible to provide journalists with security or investigate their cases.”
Agil Khalil, a former Azadliq reporter, was assaulted twice in 2008 while covering alleged corruption in Baku land deals. In the first instance, he was beaten while taking pictures of trees being cut down in the city’s Olive Garden district to make way for businessman’s private villa. Three weeks later he was stabbed by an unidentified assailant.
While he was still in the hospital, local TV channels broadcast special programs claiming that Khalil is gay, a charge that carries great social opprobrium in this conservative country.
Soon afterward, a suspect, Sergey Strekalin, was arrested on suspicion of stabbing Khalil. He confessed, saying he had stabbed Khalil after the journalist had broken off their affair. Strekalin was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the stabbing and drug possession.
Khalil denies being homosexual and says Strekalin was not his attacker. Domestic and international human rights activists say Strekalin was likely hired by the government.
Khalil said the pattern of attacks against journalists who cover top government officials is familiar: “They first try to shut you up. If that doesn’t work, they defame you.”
His former editor in chief at Azadliq, Genimet Zahid, was sentenced in 2008 to four years in prison for hooliganism and assault. In what Zahid and his attorneys say was a setup, he allegedly assaulted a man who came to the defense of woman who claimed Zahid insulted her. By Zahid’s account, the woman claiming insult came out of nowhere, as did the man, who began beating him.
In March 2010 Zahid was released under a presidential pardon and resumed his editorial duties. A year later, his children were threatened and he withdrew them from school. “For many years, threats couldn’t stop me from writing,” he said. “But I was threatened with the death of my children. That’s different. They are very young.”
In summer 2011, Zahid and his family moved to France. He said ensuring the safety of a journalist and his or her family is impossible in Azerbaijan. “If the decision is made to punish a journalist, it will be done, because in most cases the decision is made by the authorities.”
Melahet Nesibova, a mother of three, has faced the same problem. The recipient of a major international prize in 2009 for her work in furthering human rights, Nesibova reports for RFE/RL from the Nakhchivan province, sandwiched between hostile neighbors Armenia and Iran.
Nesibova covers human rights and official wrongdoing. Among her articles are several about the involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals of people who had been critical of human rights violations or corruption. She said the autonomous status of Nakhchivan, which is not contiguous to the rest of Azerbaijan, gives local officials more leeway for such abuses.
“My children were attacked several times and called the children of a traitor,” she said. “My elder daughter and son had to leave the university here and migrate to Norway.”
Nesibova said no tutor in the province will work with her younger daughter, who is 17, in preparing for high school entrance exams.
The journalist herself has been threatened and beaten repeatedly. She said she has reported each case to the Interior Ministry and the chief prosecutor in Nakhchivan, which she said have launched no investigations.
Also among those who have fled the country is the family of Elmar Huseynov, a journalist who was critical of the country’s ruling family and was murdered in 2005. His killers have never been caught.
Although they have not been threatened, Huseynov’s father said the family feared for the journalist’s son, who was 3 years old when his father died.
“The little boy could have been kidnapped or killed. We asked Elmar’s wife to leave the country to save my grandson,” Sabir Huseynov said.
Media rights activists share that pessimism.
Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety – who is not related to Elmar Huseynov – said threats and blackmailing are usually ordered by high-level officials. “The government is not going to investigate a case that is orchestrated by someone working for the state.”
That leaves it up to reporters to watch out for themselves, he said: “Journalists should be alert all the time, no matter where they are or what they do.”