Azerbaijan: Crackdown on critical media ahead of elections

Azerbaijani government sustains a concerted assault on critical journalists, threatening the survival of independent media in the country. The government’s use of criminal prosecution as a tool for political retaliation against its critics is a well-documented problem.

The country is teetering on the brink of a human rights crisis, with producing new political prisoners on a host of fake charges and creating horrible human rights environment. The vicious crackdown against the media continues since late November: At least 9 journalists that worked for Kanal 13 and Abzas Media, popular independent media outlets known for criticizing the authorities and exposing corruption, have been arrested on politically motivated charges. The journalists face spurious charges of smuggling by an organized group and could be sentenced up to eight years in prison. Dozens of other journalists were called to police investigations while some face travel bans. The signal the government is sending to its critics is clear: They should stop the journalist investigations and hard-hitting exposes or face the consequences.

Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) has long documented how independent and critical media in Azerbaijan are frequently subject to censorship and forcible closure alongside with the systematic harassment, arbitrary punishment and arrest of journalists and social media activists.

The repression on critics continue on the background of the pre-election season as the country will go to snap presidential elections in less than 3 weeks. On December 7, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, had unexpectedly signed a decree calling a snap presidential election for February 7, 2024. Aliyev, 61, has been in power since 2003, and his current, fourth, term was set to expire in early 2025.

The existing human rights situation in Azerbaijan casts a darker cloud over the upcoming elections.  Authorities have failed to produce any credible evidence that could support the charges against the detained journalists. Human rights defenders contend that the alleged evidence was forged and that the accusations are politically motivated, designed to quash dissent. Despite the international criticism and condemnation, Azerbaijan’s authorities remain undisturbed. Their official position is that these activists and journalists are in jail for criminal activities. But their claims ring hollow. What many of these “criminals” have in common is a history of being outspoken on the human rights abuses and exposing the corruption.

Days before his arrest, the imprisoned anti-corruption journalist, Hafiz Babali, wrote in his Facebook post: “If I have lived in another country, I would hear thanks at the state level for these investigative articles on corruption. Criminal cases would have been brought against those who got rich illegally. But my fate in Azerbaijan, as you can see, is just the opposite: the government persecutes those who criticize it.”

As the press freedom situation is worsening steadily in Azerbaijan, the country is near the bottom in international rankings on media freedom. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 151 out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index. By creating a climate of fear and intimidation among the journalists, the government seeks to compel them to engage in self-censorship. The country media law, which took effect in February 2022, was condemned by human rights community aiming to control and stifle the independent media groups and news cites.

NHC urges authorities to end the targeting of what remains of independent voices in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s international partners should act decisively to insist on the immediate release of journalists and activists who are now behind bars for trying to exercise their right to free speech.

The list of the journalists who are being detained at Baku’s notorious Kurdekhani remand prison, awaiting trials on bogus charges, including smuggling and other economic crimes:

Ulvi Hasanli is a prominent human rights defender and journalist, as well as the director of Abzas Media since 2016. Police detained Hasanli on November 20 at his home, hours before his of his planned trip to Moldova to participate in an event. As a well-known activist, Hasanli had also led several pro-democracy youth groups in the past, including Dalga, Free Youth Movement and NIDA youth movement. He had faced numerous harassments in past years, including detention, beating and interrogation as a retaliation against his activism.
Aziz Orujov, the director of Kanal 13, which is the largest internet TV in Azerbaijan, with up to 2 million subscriber base, was arrested on 28 November. This is not the first politically motivated prosecution for Orujov, as he was was sentenced to six years on other bogus charges in 2017, and was released on probation a year later. Kanal13 regularly covered politically  sensitive topics and exposed human rights violations and gave space to opposition views in its Youtube channels.
Sevinj Vagifgizi is a famed and courageous journalist, who was the editor-in chief of Abzas Media. She reported extensively on government corruption, including exposing the business interests of high-level officials and members of the ruling family. Because of her journalism, Vaqifqizi had faced numerous interrogations and travel ban, between 2015-2019 when she was barred from travelling abroad. She had also used to work many years for Meydan TV, Azerbaijani media group in exile.
Hafiz Babali is a famous journalist whose in-depth pieces on corruption and investigative pieces exposed evidence of corruption networks that pointed to the country’s top elite and powerful ministers. Often publishing hard-hitting reports at Abzas Media, Babali was also head of the economic department of “Turan” news agency. After detaining him, police also made search in Babali’s apartment, confiscating the journalist’s computer, cell phone, and documents. He was without a lawyer during the detention and search.
Nargiz Absalamova of Abzas Media is a courageous young journalist who often had reported on corruption and socio-economic inequality. In late November, police had lengthily interrogated her to testify as witnesses about the Abzas Media’s financial sources, as well as its administrative and editorial leadership. On 1 December, the court sent her to 3 months of pretrial detention.
Mahammad Kekalov worked for Abzas Media and is a social entrepreneur advocating for disability rights and inclusion. Kekalov was kidnapped on 20 November, and his whereabouts remained unknown for two days while in Azerbaijani custody. He was reportedly tortured by police to give incriminating statements against the leadership of Abzas Media.
Elnara Gasimova, an investigative journalist associated with Abzas Media, was arrested on 15 January. Since late November, police had extensively questioned her as a witness in an investigation on Abzas Media. She had predicted her arrest and continue her criticism and work despite the pressure against her.
Shamo Eminov, journalist with Kanal13, was arrested on December 22, as he was on his way to conduct an interview. Eminov had often reported on human rights, police arbitrariness, socio-economic problems in the regions where he exposed the negative impacts of corruption in the rural communities.

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Inna Sangadzhieva

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Dag A. Fedøy

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