Azerbaijan’s silenced voices
As the international community looks forward to the Eurovision Song Contest, Azerbaijan is working hard to present itself as a modern, democratic country. But a new report from Index and partners paints a very different picture Turgut Gambar: Dissent stirs in Azerbaijan
27 Mar 12

As the international community looks forward to the Eurovision Song Contest, Azerbaijan is working hard to present itself as a modern, democratic country. But a new report from Index and partners paints a very different picture 

Investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was among journalists and free expression advocates at the Frontline Club yesterday discussing the deteriorating situation for freedom of expression and human rights in Azerbaijan in the run up the Eurovision Song Contest — and to highlight the importance of keeping up pressure on the government after one of the biggest pop events of the year has passed.

The press event, which highlighted violence against critical voices and the government’s aggressive progamme of urban redevelopment, coincided with the publication of the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan‘s (IPGA)’s report Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices, a joint report by Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other campaigning and press freedom organisations.

Ismayilova, who spoke about the recent blackmailing campaign against her, widely accepted to be retaliation for her investigative journalism into corruption, was one of the panellists. On 7 March, Ismayilova was threatened in the most conventional of ways — she received a collection of intimate photographs through the post, with a note warning her to “behave” or she would be “defamed”. But authorities seriously miscalculated both her response and those of her family members.

They assumed, said Ismayilova, that, like some other journalists who have suffered similar blackmail campaigns,  she would bow to pressure and temper her reports. But Ismayilova went public with her story.  Days later, on 14 March 2012, an intimate video of Ismayilova filmed by a hidden camera was posted to the internet.

Exposing Ismayilova in this way was particularly vicious, as honour killings still take place in Azerbaijan and the authorities would have been well aware that Ismayilova’s life could potentially be in serious danger. Ismayilova demanded an immediate investigation.

In They Took Everything From Me, Human Rights Watch documents how residents have been forcibly evicted without reasonable notice and chronicles the demolition of homes. Senior Researcher for the organisation’s Europe and Central Asia Division Giorgi Gogai said the government had denied any residential properties had been destroyed to make way for Eurovision-related building work.

Media expert Vugar Gojayev spoke about the ways in which political life has shrunk in Azerbaijan, made worse by last year’s closure of the Human Rights House in Baku – the centre had been an important place for writers and civil society activists to meet. Outside the capital, things are worse. There are no opposition newspapers or opposition parties and most public gatherings are banned.

Azerbaijan works hard to present itself as a modern, democratic country with excellent business opportunities for multinational corporations. But recent attacks against journalists and activists reveal a government unwilling to hear the voices of its people: there are approximately 60 political prisoners in the country at the moment.

The IPGA’s report also examines the significant gap between the image the government is trying to promote and the situation on the ground and Index’s Head of Advocacy Mike Harris examines how the Azerbaijani government strives to influence opinion not only among the international business community but also, crucially, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the political branch of the Council of Europe.

On Wednesday, Index’s Freedom of Expression Awards celebrates journalists, activists, innovators and artists working on the frontline for free speech.

Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov, who has reported on the activities of an Azerbaijani oil company and whose home was targeted in retaliation, is on the shortlist for the journalism awards.

Click here to download the report and to read more about the free expression crisis in Azerbaijan