After previous rounds of raids, arrests, and repressions, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is once again moving to eradicate the last vestiges of the country’s free press. But despite his apparent strength, the existence of media organisations like AbzasMedia, currently in the government crosshairs, proves that he cannot succeed.
On Monday, Azerbaijani police raided the offices of AbzasMedia and swept up its director, Ulvi Hasanli, as he was on his way to the airport. The following day, editor-in-chief Sevinj Vagifgizi boarded a return flight to Baku, knowing full well she would face the same fate.
The organisation’s deputy director, Mahammad Kekalov, was also detained on Monday, with family members and his lawyer unable to contact him for three days. This led to speculation he faced pressure, or even torture, to turn him against his colleagues. After he reemerged in custody, he declined the services of his lawyer, opting instead for court-appointed representation.
The authorities accuse Abzas’ leadership of smuggling money, claiming to have discovered €40,000 ($44,000) in cash in their offices. They face lengthy jail sentences if convicted.
These accusations are almost certainly spurious. In fact, they were the same allegations brought against investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli after he was kidnapped from Tbilisi in 2017.
Abzas is one of the last media organisations brave enough to continue to operate in Azerbaijan; most independent news organisations have long been forced to operate from exile. As one of OC Media’s partners in Azerbaijan, we have observed first-hand their commitment to the same values and journalistic standards we hold ourselves to.
It is easy to see why AbzasMedia was targeted by the government. Their investigations have revealed illegality at all layers of government. This is a situation that cannot have pleased Ilham Aliyev. Indeed, ten years ago, Aliyev made a similar decision to punish the journalists who exposed his and his family’s illicit businesses, labelling them ‘foreign-funded’ and moving to shut them down.
Since 20 November, a number of international organisations have called on the government to drop the charges against AbzasMedia and release its staff. OC Media joins in those calls.
It is a shame that most Western governments have not yet found the backbone necessary to make even statements to the same effect.
So far, only the US State Department has expressed its ‘deep concern’ over the arrest of AbzasMedia director Ulvi Hasanli, and this in response to a question from independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan.
Others, such as the UK Government’s Minister for Europe, Leo Docherty, have continued to fawn over the Azerbaijani president. Meeting with Aliyev on Wednesday as Abzas’ staff languished in prison, Docherty made clear how ‘great’ it was to be ‘back in Baku’, adding what a ‘privilege’ it was to ‘discuss regional security’ with President Aliyev.
It’s important that the Western governments act on the values they profess not to leave an impression of applying them selectively or instrumentally.
Azerbaijan’s journalists defiant
Repression of free speech and freedom of the press is nothing new in Azerbaijan.
Since his election in 2003, Ilham Aliyev has run Azerbaijan with increasing authoritarianism.
In a wave of repressions in 2013–2015, the free press was all but wiped out. During this time, the offices of RFE/RL, MeydanTV, Voice of America, and several other local and international media groups operating in Azerbaijan were shuttered, with the activities of their journalists restricted. Around 100 journalists, activists, and NGO workers were arrested on various charges. Now, 10 years after the last big roundup of journalists, the process of suffocating the media is beginning again with AbzasMedia.
If journalists in the country face such threats to their lives and livelihoods due to their professional activities, it is not difficult to imagine the situation of ordinary citizens. As the system in the country is built on fear and threats, demanding one’s rights or speaking truth to power can undoubtedly result in arrest or even torture.
The government’s harsh treatment of journalists, activists, and opponents in previous years and now with AbzasMedia, makes clear that nobody is safe, and it could be our own journalists who come next.
This anxiety — the question of ‘who is next?’ — is one that is once again coming to dominate the discourse among those who do not toe the Azerbaijani government’s line.
And yet, since 2013, independent media in Azerbaijan have continued to shine a light on the truth no matter the cost. And despite standing alone against a state intent on silencing and suppressing them, those hoping to create a more just and democratic society in Azerbaijan are not deterred.
AbzasMedia was founded in 2016, not long after the previous round of repressions against the media. The very fact of their existence is proof that try as he might, Ilham Aliyev cannot destroy the press.
Following the arrests on 20 November, AbzasMedia released a statement of defiance.
‘We believe that by ordering the arrest of the management of AbzasMedia, President Aliyev aims to close down this media organisation and prevent information about corruption from reaching you. But for us at AbzasMedia, no arrest or other form of pressure can stop us from bringing you the correct news.’
‘You deserve accurate information, and you have the right to know by whom and how your taxes are being spent. Our detention cannot prevent your freedom of information. We will continue our investigations.’
Already, Azerbaijan’s embattled community of independent journalists is mobilising behind the scenes to save Abzas — and ensure their work, their sacrifice is not in vain. They deserve our support.