European Centre for Press and Media Freedom launches Khadija petition at Newsweek conference
“Unbelievable and totally unacceptable.” That’s how Lutz Mükke described the jailing of Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova, protesting on behalf of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). With the ECMPF Board Chairman Henrik Kaufholz at the Newsweek Media Freedom Conference in Belgrade last week, they immediately launched a petition calling on Ilham Aliyev the President of Azerbaijan, to free the investigative reporter (see text below).
Khadija Ismayilova’s own colleagues at the Organised Crime and Corruption Project blacked-out the front page of their website in solidarity.
In an interview with ECPMF, her boss Paul Radu, the Executive Director at the OCCRP, revealed how Khadija was the target of a smear campaign, with a hidden camera embedded in her bedroom wall taking intimate footage of Ms Ismayilova with her boyfriend. The pictures were sent to her brother - who reacted furiously - and they were broadcast on state TV channels.
Khadija Ismayilova now faces a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence after the court in Baku found her guilty of a series of charges.
Khadija Ismayilova now faces a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence after the court in Baku found her guilty of a series of charges. Before the case was heard she endured months of pre-trial detention after her arrest on December 5th 2014. During that period there was an outcry from international organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International. Supporters demonstrated at the Azeri embassies in the states of Moldova and Georgia, two other former Soviet republics where press freedom is restricted. And when President Aliyev met German Chancellor Angel Merkel in Berlin in January 2015, demonstrators calling for the release of Khajida and other prisons gathered outside the building.
When the charges against Khadija finally came to court, they included tax evasion, embezzlement and running an illegal business. Ironically these are topics she has written about in her work for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project OCCRP and broadcasted on Azadliq Radiousu, the Azerbaijan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Khadija has reported on the oil-rich former Soviet Republic’s rulers’ extravagant spending – for example on luxury yachts for the president’s family, palaces and glitzy events such as the Eurovision Song Contest. For stories such as these, Khadija has been honoured with a press freedom prize from the US National Press Club.
OCCRP is funded by USAID, the American Government’s pro-democracy charity, the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and the Swiss-Romanian Co-operation Programme. Radio Free Europe is funded by the US taxpayer and calls itself “a surrogate free press” in 23 countries where people cannot get “uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.”
Radio Free Europe broadcast a special live report on Khadija’s case http://bit.ly/1L6EyOn and live-blogged the entire court case, assessing the reaction from Azeris and from human rights organisations. Blogger Arzu Geybulla, following the proceedings in Baku, said the response from most international readers was that the case had been “completely biased and the whole trial was a theatre trial”. Arzu Geybulla works for the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, a Washington DC-based Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
The Azeri government accuses media freedom campaigners of politicising a ‘criminal trial.’ The official news agency AZERTAC quotes the President’s spokesperson:
"Journalist of "Azadlig" radio Khadija Ismayilova faced criminal charges for committing concrete criminal acts unrelated with her journalistic activities. During the trial the charges were fully proved and the adequate decision was made. That is why attempts to politicise the court`s verdict about Ismayilova by some international organizations, officials of different countries, and a number of international human rights organizations are unacceptable", Presidential Aide for Public and Political Affairs, the Azerbaijani President`s Aide for Public and Political Affairs Ali Hasanov told AZERTAC.
By way of background, the news agency adds:
“Today hundreds of media outlets are freely and safely operating, journalists are carrying out their duties without any obstacles. As in developed Western countries, journalists don`t face any charges for their professional activities in Azerbaijan as well.
That is why we consider unacceptable the fact of some foreign circles` distorting the realities in Azerbaijan, and generalizing separate cases groundlessly thus damaging the country`s democratic image and we call them to refrain from this approach.” http://azertag.az/en/xeber/881615
At Khadija Ismayilova’s request, the OCCRP has started a publicity campaign called The Khadija Project, to continue reporting the stories she researched and keep researching corruption allegations in Azerbaijan.
Paul Radu says: “She sent us a folder and we are already starting to publish some of her investigations.”
He has presented two of them in infographic form at the BINT conference in Malaysia.
In her defence Ms Ismayilova made a long speech to the court, refuting the charges against her and challenging the lack of evidence. She defended her journalism, thanked her colleagues and her international supporters, and explained her motivation: to make Azerbaijan a better place: “Let us not forget, this is our country” she said “Let us not sacrifice it with our silence”.