In the run up to today’s Azerbaijani presidential election, we publish an article and photographs from Index on Censorship magazine showing how the authorities have cracked down on journalists, activists and artists that criticize the government. These stories of the risks journalist and photographers face show how far the regime will go to silence its critics including intimidation and prison sentences. Writers Rasul Jafarov and Rebecca Vincent document the stories of some of the country’s courageous photojournalists, who have documented what life is really like under President Ilham Aliyev.
“In authoritarian regimes, art can serve as a powerful means of expressing criticism and dissent, subverting traditional means of censorship. Photography is particularly telling, capturing the raw truth and making it difficult for even seasoned propagandists to refute. These photographs, from Abbas Atilay, Shahla Sultanova, Mehman Huseynov, Aziz Karimov, Ahmed Muxtar and Jahangir Yusif, show a side of the capital Baku that contrasts sharply with the sleek, glossy image President Ilham Aliyev’s government seeks to portray. They expose an authoritarian regime prepared to arrest those who document protests and criticism — journalists, human rights defenders, civic and political activists and even ordinary citizens.
But those who embrace subjects others prefer to avoid, exposing unsavoury truths the Azerbaijani authorities would prefer to keep hidden — such as corruption and human rights abuses — do so at significant personal risk and hardship.
As journalists, they face intimidation, harassment, threats, blackmail, attacks and imprisonment in connection with their work, which is seen as direct criticism of the authorities. As artists, they face economic hardship and restrictions on where they can display and disseminate their work.
Most of these images were taken during unsanctioned protests in Baku. Photographers face particular hazards when covering protests in Azerbaijan, as not only can they be injured in the general chaos, but they can also be singled out because of their work. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety reports that so far in 2013 there have been 17 attacks against journalists and photographers covering protests.
Photographers also face arrest and protracted legal action as a result of their work. Mehman Huseynov faces up to five years in prison on politically motivated hooliganism charges stemming from an altercation with a police officer during protests ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012. The photographers featured in this story are among the few courageous individuals in Azerbaijan who remain willing to take on the risks associated with this work. They need international support and protection before they, too, become the subjects rather than the artists.”
Rasul Jafarov is the chairman of the Human Rights Club and project coordinator of the Art for Democracy Campaign. Rebecca Vincent is Art for Democracy’s advocacy director. She writes regularly on human rights issues in Azerbaijan
To find out more about the magazine and for subscription options, and read more about stories from the issue click here. These photographers will be part of an exhibition in London this winter. For more details, follow @art4democracy Join us to launch of Index on Censorship’s autumn issue on 15 October. To register for the event, click here.