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RFE/RL Azerbaijan faces firestorm of criticism over allegations of mismanagement

15 August 2023
The RFE/RL head office in Prague. Photo: Jan Rambousek/RFE/RL

A wave of dismissals and resignations from RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, along with the hiring of allegedly pro-government individuals, has led to a barrage of criticism from journalists and civil society figures. Former employees have accused a group of senior managers at Azadlig Radiosu of financial mismanagement, bullying, and running the organisation for their own benefit.

Over the past two years, at least six journalists and editors have been fired with at least another three resigning in protest.

Several of the former employees, as well as journalists from outside RFE/RL and local civil society figures, have accused the head of Radio Azadlig, Ilkin Mammadov, along with other senior managers, of endangering the outlet’s mission, including by hiring people close to the government. Former employees have also made accusations of financial misconduct.

They also spoke of a culture of bullying at Azadlig Radiosu, accusing Mammadov and other senior managers of abusing employees.

RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) is an independent US government-funded media organisation that operates in 23 countries where access to information is either censored by the government or less developed.

Mammadov was appointed to head the organisation’s Azerbaijani service from Prague in 2015, shortly after the Azerbaijani government shut down their offices in Baku and restricted access to their website.

A joint statement released on 9 August and signed by five former employees accused the management of RFE/RL of failing to address the situation in Azadlig Radiosu.

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They demanded that RFE/RL conduct a transparent and effective investigation, including an independent financial investigation of the past eight years of Azadlig Radiosu’s operations and an investigation into allegations of ‘ill-treatment, disrespect, bullying, harassment of those who question the management’s activities, and favouritism against former and current employees’.

They added that the results of such investigations should be made public.

Their demands were echoed on Monday by a group of prominent Azerbaijani journalists and civil society figures.

‘The allegations that the leadership of the Azadlig Radiosu has actively undermined its commitment to independent and unbiased broadcasting by mounting pressure and mistreating its employees are deeply concerning’, their statement said.

They called on RFE/RL’s acting president, Jeffrey Gedmin, to establish an independent committee to investigate the allegations, ‘especially concerning financial irregularities’.

They also called on the organisation to suspend Ilkin Mammadov as head of Azadlig Radiosu until such an investigation was complete.

The signatories included prominent journalists such as Afgan Mukhtarli and Habib Muntazir, as well as civil rights activists such as Anar Mammadli.

‘Managing it like his grandfather’s property’

The issue came to the fore following the dismissal in July of long-time employee Turkhan Karimov, and his replacement with a man who had previously worked with Azerbaijan’s state television.

Karimov had been working at Azadlig Radiosu for over a decade, first as a reporter, before the closure of the Baku office. 

Karimov said he was dismissed from his role as social media manager suddenly and without warning, claiming Azadlig Radiosu head Ilkin Mammadov told him he was ‘not active’ enough. 

Immediately after his removal, Mammad Sharif was appointed to the position held by Karimov.

Sharif has been involved in several Azerbaijani state-funded projects and has frequently appeared on pro-government TV channels.

Sharif also owns a production company and had previously worked with Mammadov, with critics describing them as being close friends.

Former employees have accused Sharif of spearheading the replacement of staff at Azadlig Radiosu since his appointment.

Karimov’s dismissal prompted the resignation of at least three other employees.

Journalist Orkhan Rustamzade announced he was resigning in protest on 2 August, naming Ilkin Mammadov, line editor Vusala Alibeyli, and editor-in-chief Zeynal Mammadli of being responsible for the situation.

‘For years there has been serious dissatisfaction with the managers I mentioned above in the Baku office. Employees are mistreated, threatened, bullied, and mobbed. Those who protest are fired, dismissed, or forced to do so. Especially the employees working in Baku are devalued’, Rustamzade said.

Ramin Jabrayilov (known as Ramin Deko), also announced his resignation the same day, ‘so that things don’t get any worse’. 

Journalist Islam Shikhali, said on 2 August that he had earlier stopped working with Azadlig Radiosu for the same reasons, including the financial management of the organisation by Ilkin Mammadov.

‘I objected to him managing it like his grandfather’s property’, he said.

Khalid Aghaliyev, a specialist in Media Law based in Baku, told OC Media that the allegations from former employees ‘warrant a serious, internal investigation into [Azadlig Radiosu]’. 

‘Such claims require some kind of investigation accompanied by informing the society [of the results]’.

RFE/RL has so far remained relatively silent on the affair. In a short statement on X (formerly Twitter) on 4 August, they appeared to dismiss the allegations.

‘[RFE/RL] is deeply concerned about unsubstantiated claims circulating on social media impugning our journalism in Azerbaijan’, they said. ‘[RFE/RL] is committed to free and fair journalism.’

Neither RFE/RL’s central office nor Ilkin Mammadov responded to a request to comment further. 

Zeynal Mammadli, editor-in-chief of Azadlig Radiosu, dismissed the allegations. ‘It is not my place to make a statement, but I can say that everything written is nonsense. People criticising the government now behave like the government against Radio Liberty’, Mammadli told OC Media.

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