Azerbaijan holds one of the world’s worst records for press freedom. Campaigns are set to intimidate and silence journalists, repressive laws criminalise freedom of speech and the majority of media are under direct or indirect state control. The situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past twelve months and few independent, critical voices remain. While many journalists have left the country for fear of prosecution, one of them decided to stay and is now behind the bars. Her name is Khadija Ismayilova.
The award winning journalist has worked at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azerbaijani service since 2008. She started as the Baku bureau chief for the Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq and then returned to freelancing to maintain her independence, according to close friends. She reported extensively on widespread corruption in the country including on the financial activities of family members of President Azeri Ilham Aliyev.
“Khadija is a very brave journalist who does not compromise and always abides by strong journalistic ethical standards” recalls RFE’s editor in chief Nenad Pejic who praised her work in denouncing corruption in Azerbaijan.
Since 2012, Khadija has been targeted by government media outlets and threatened with physical harm and arrest. An illegal video of her private life was used in an attempted blackmail. But she refused to be silenced and did not stop her investigations.
She was arrested on December 5, 2014 on charges of inciting a colleague to commit suicide. Although the colleague has withdrawn his accusations the Public prosecutor has pursued the case. Meanwhile, presumably doubting the believability of the initial charges, the authorities have since added charges of libel and tax evasion for which she risks up to 7 years imprisonment.
The journalist has denied all accusations and blames the Azerbaijan government for trying to silence her. Her lawyers have appealed to the court and are also preparing for an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the legitimacy of her initial arrest.
Her colleagues also stand behind her. “Khadija doesn’t want to separate herself from what is going on in Azerbaijan and asks for all human rights defenders to receive the same support she does,” says Ilkin Mammadov, acting operation manager for the RFE’s Azeri services.
“The only way to prove oppressive regimes wrong is to continue exposing corruption” wrote Khadija in a letter published on 6th February 2015. “My arrest proves one more time that we must build a new reality where telling the truth will not require courage.”
Khadija Ismayilova was recently awarded PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award, given annually to "an imprisoned writer persecuted for exercising her right to free expression."