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Azerbaijan: Investigative Journalist Defiant After Blackmail Threat

This post is part of our special coverage Eurovision Azerbaijan 2012.

According to Freedom House, the situation with freedom of expression in Azerbaijan remains “dire,” with the authorities continuing “to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions.” However, as one outspoken critic of the government again discovered this month, there are also other ways to silence journalists and investigative reporters.

Khadija Ismailova, a journalist with Radio Free Europe's Baku Bureau who has frequently exposed high-level corruption in the oil-rich former Soviet republic, received a letter from an unknown person. Inside, a note, accompanied by photographs taken with a hidden camera, warned her to cease her journalistic activities by threatening to release a video of an intimate and personal nature.

Rather than succumb to the blackmail threat, however, Ismailova responded openly to the blackmail attempt on Facebook in a note written in Azerbaijani and English:

It says if I don’t stop working I will be hugely embarrassed. This threat is not a surprise for me. I have been doing investigative journalism for a long time. My investigation included the secret business of president Ilham Aliyev’s family and documented the facts of corruption on the highest level, disclosed the offshore businesses of members of the ruling family.

Currently I am working on several investigative reports. I have sent inquires to the Government offices about businesses of ruling family.

[...]

I would like to repeat that this is not the first time that these acts of blackmail have been used against fellow journalists. The motives of these acts are very well known to public. It is done to silence people who are outspoken. There are a serious crimes behind these acts.

Ismailova also spoke openly on an independent alternative television station available only on the Internet. “This practice [of intimidating journalists] needs to be stopped,” RFE/RL quoted her as saying. “[...] And I think the least I can do is to continue and fight back.”

Nevertheless, the video was released, and support for the embattled journalist increased. As European Parliament members voiced their support, so too did others such as renowned Azerbaijani photojournalist Rena Effendi:

[...] Here is a disturbing piece of news I got from one of my colleagues, an investigative reporter Khadija Ismayil, who was blackmailed by the authorities today. Khadija Ismayil is a journalist of very high caliber, professional and uncompromising in her integrity! For years, she has been investigating the subject of government corruption in Azerbaijan, a subject that nobody else dares to address in such thorough manner as she has done so far. Please see her statement below, as well as links to her articles. To be honest, given the gruesome state of affairs with civil society in Azerbaijan, I worry for Khadija's safety. I hope that she will stay safe and continue her important work. Please help spread the word [...]

Emin Milli, one of the two ‘donkey bloggers’ conditionally released from prison after receiving sentences that international organizations considered politically motivated, did just that:

Khadija Ismayil, one of the most professional and bravest journalists in Azerbaijan has been blackmailed by authoritarian system in Azerbaijan. For last several years she has conducted the investigations on shady business deals of the President's family. It is a taboo topic in Azerbaijan which many journalists and citizens are even afraid to talk about openly.

[...] In one of wikileaks cables she is called “ENEMY OF THE STATE” by the president of Azerbaijan during one of the meetings with American diplomats. It is important that international community, journalists around the world support her at this moment, condemn this disgraceful attempt of blackmailing and demand personally from the President Ilham Aliyev to guarantee her safety in Azerbaijan.

Yet, while the Azerbaijani government denied any hand in the blackmail attempt, others such as the South Caucasus Diary were not convinced:

The current case does not come by surprise. On February 23, 2012 CNBC's popular “Filthy Rich” program showed an episode about the filthy rich President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and his family. Khadija Ismayil was among the journalists who assisted in preparing the episode and bringing in the evidence.

[...]

Still wonder who ordered the video?

One Azerbaijani youth group even responded by warning tourists visiting Baku for this year's Eurovision Song Contest not to have sex in hotel rooms or rented apartments [RU] because they might be filmed clandestinely, and controversial Azerbaijani author Ali Akper [AZ] commented too, refering to a similar incident with another journalist.

İqtidar yenə öz sevimli məşğuliyyətinə qayıdıb. Çoxdandır bizə porno göstərmirdilər. Səhv etmirəmsə axırıncı dəfə oteldə masturbasiyaya tamaşa etmişdik. İndi də Xədicə İsmayılovanın yataq otağını çəkib yayıblar. Xədicənin atılan dırnağı belə ola bilməyəcək adamlar, bu video ilə onu nüfuzdan sala biləcəklərini düşünürlər. Zırt!

[...]

[...] biz tabuları qırmadıqca, mentalitetin dalından yağlı bir təpik ilişdirmədikcə, əxlaqçılığa yox demədikcə, bu psevdodəyərlərlə möhtəkirlik edən rejimə məğlub olacağıq. [...] zırrama paradiqmalarla yaşayan millət, əsla və əsla azad ola bilməz. Nə qədər çox “eyibdür” desək, bir o qədər əziləcəyik, çünki vuayerist rejim hamımıza bir ağızdan “eyibdür” dedirdəcək [...]

The government has returned to its favorite job. It has been a long time since we have been shown porn. If I am not mistaken last time we were watching masturbation at a hotel. And now, they taped the bedroom of Khadija Ismayilova. People who are not worth Khadija's finger nail think that they will belittle her this way. Never!

[...]

[...] until we break taboos, get rid of this mentality, say no to this morale, we will yield to a regime which speculates with pseudo-values. [...] a nation which lives with slushy paradigms will never ever be free. As much as we say “it is shameful” we will be defeated that much because this voyeuristic regime will make us say “it is shameful” all together.

Blogger Turkhan [AZ] also weighed in, sarcastically seeming to refer to wearing the image of an untouchable local political figure.

Hər kəsi bir cür şəxsi intim həyatı var. İntim həyatın olması ayıb deyil. Amma bu intim həyatı gizlincə çəkib yaymaq şərəfsizlikdi. Camaatın yatağına girmək düzgün deyil!

Mən bilirəm ki, mənim də videom adiyyatı qurumlarda var. Amma bu videonu heç zaman yaya bilməyəcəklər. Çünki məlum hadisə zamanı T-shirt-imin qabağında və arxasında bir nəfərin şəkili gülümsəyir

Everyone has their own intimate private life. It is not shameful to have an intimate private life. It is dishonorable to tape an intimate private life secretly and to spread it. It is not correct to sneak into people's bedrooms!

I know relevant institutions have my videos too. But they will never be able to spread that video. Because during the notorious process there is an image of someone on the front and back of my T-shirt with a smile on his face.

The Azerbaijani government has promised to find those responsible for the video and bring them to justice, but critics point out that the undertaking to find those guilty of the March 2005 murder of journalist Elmar Huseynov has so far failed to yield any results. “This is a despicable attempt to discredit a journalist in the process of investigating of government corruption at the highest level,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.

“The participation of state-owned press in this disgraceful smear campaign amounts to officially sanctioned extortion and brings disrepute on national leaders who claim to welcome journalists from more than 40 countries for the Eurovision Song Contest,” added the Committee to Protect Journalists on 14 March. Meanwhile, a petition to support Khadija Ismailova has been launched here.

This post is part of our special coverage Eurovision Azerbaijan 2012.

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