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A woman in Azerbaijan is suing a journalist for filming her appearing to commit election fraud during last year’s presidential election.
Elmira Alandarova, the deputy director of Baku’s School No 251, claimed that journalist Sevinj Vagifgizi violated her honour and dignity with her video report published by Azerbaijani news site Meydan TV.
Vagifgizi produced the report documenting violations in two polling stations located in School No 251, which covered Baku’s Nizami District II constituency No 25. Alandarova appears in both polling stations in the video.
Vagifgizi said people at the polling station tried to prevent her from filming, arguing she was disrupting the election, after she noticed that carousel voting — a practice in which the same voters vote multiple times — was occurring.
Extraordinary presidential elections were held in Azerbaijan on 11 April 2018, in which Ilham Aliyev was reelected president for a fourth term of 7 years.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said in its final report on the election that ‘international observers reported widespread disregard for mandatory procedures, lack of transparency, and numerous serious irregularities, such as ballot box stuffing’.
In her lawsuit filed over a year after the election, Alandarova is demanding that Vagifgizi apologise, pay her compensation for moral damages of ₼2,500 ($1,500), and that the video be taken down from the web pages of Meydan TV and Azadlig newspaper.
Alandarova made a criminal complaint against Vagifgizi at the Baku Main Police Office soon after the video was released, but a case was not opened as Vagifgizi had not committed any criminal offence.
A preliminary hearing on the case was held in Binagadi District Court on 27 May. However, when Vagifgizi entered the courtroom, she discovered that the process was viewed without her presence.
Vagifgizi, a freelance journalist working in Azerbaijan, has repeatedly faced persecution for her activities and has been detained by police. On 13 May, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office lifted restrictions on her ability to leave the country that had been in place since 2015.
The timing of the case soon after her travel ban was lifted led many on social media as well as Vagifgizi herself to question the true motivation behind the lawsuit.
‘My exit ban from the country was recently abolished, and then this issue came up. I don’t know why’, Vagifgizi told OC Media. She said that the lifting of her travel ban could have led Alandarova to take action against her on her own initiative or it could have been on the orders of someone else.
‘From the very beginning, I will say that there will be no apology or compensation. We will take this to the European Court [of Human Rights].’
She insisted the allegations raised by Alandarova in court were groundless.
‘I fulfilled my mission and I watched that woman all the time. We will present all the facts that we have in court.’
Vagifkizi's lawyer, Zibeyda Sadigova, accused Alandarova of abusing the right to appeal to the court.
‘The incident took place in the election process. Journalists have the right to observe and shine a light on the election process, the processes taking place in constituencies and polling stations’, Sadigova told OC Media.
‘Journalists' work is to illuminate the election process. Sevinj Vagifgizi fulfilled her duty as a journalist. This journalist has not violated the rights of anyone, she has just fulfilled his professional activity.’
Sadigova also raised questions about the timing of the lawsuit.
‘If [Alandarova] had been thinking about [Vagifgizi] a year ago, that her honour and dignity had been stained and that it was the fault of the journalist, she would have taken it to court earlier.’
Media law expert Khalid Aghaliyev said that the lawsuit was a clear expression of the official approach to media freedom in Azerbaijan.
‘Unfortunately, practices by the government, officials, and the courts that are contradictory to media freedom have not changed for decades’, Aghaliyev told OC Media.
‘The subject of this trial is the spread of video footage. The journalist cannot fabricate a video image, she filmed what happened. This video footage should be the basis for law enforcement agencies to investigate [what happened in the video]. The accusations against the journalist in court one year later are incomprehensible.’
Aghaliyev said that as Vagifkizi's exit ban was cancelled, the latest court case was an indication of the government’s policy of oppressing the free media.
‘The government tries to persecute people who use the rights of freedom of expression more seriously, to keep journalists under their influence and keep them scared’, he said.
The next hearing is scheduled for 10 June.