Terrified journalists

Ștefan Cândea
A few months ago we met journalist Agil Khalil in Milan, before an ample manifestation against organized crime. We crammed into the two-door car of some FLARE volunteers - co-organizers of the event - who took us from the airport to the hotel. Agil was invited as victim of organized crime, but, on the road, I didn’t have time to learn about the terrors he was subjected to before fleeing Azerbaijan. I only knew he had taken refuge in Paris in a special location for journalists such as himself. In Baku I had the chance to find out more about this young journalist’s adventure in Azerbaijan.

It all started the moment Agil accidentally came across an illegal logging business owned by the Secret Services. He wanted to write an article on it. For six months he was discredited in the government press, harassed by the Police, beaten, pushed from the platform in front of an oncoming subway train and stabbed in the chest. International organizations and the embassies in Baku intervened in favour of Agil and he was hired bodyguards in order to get him out of the country. He had tried to flee the country several times, but he was turned around from the airport and the border with Georgia under various pretexts. In the end, after a dramatic night spent in Baku Airport and after the intervention of the French and the U.S.A. embassies, Agil managed to get on a plane.

Agil’s situation is representative for the manner in which the state acts with regard to the independent and critical press. Inconvenient journalists or bloggers have been assassinated, kidnapped and tortured. Others made it alive, but they were imprisoned even for having mocked the corruption of their government leaders.

Emin Huseynov is running an NGO for the reporters’ safety and freedom of expression. He was also brutally beaten, arrested, his equipment was destroyed; in addition, various state bodies make regular intimidating inspections at his office downtown. Emin is quite adamant: ‘There is no independent television or radio. Only two journals are resistance journals, but even they are partially controlled when certain pieces of information mustn’t be published’. Anyway, journals have a very low impact in Azerbaijan with a circulation of 5.000-10.000 copies. Moreover, according to Emin, the lack of a distribution network has lead to a circulation of only 1.000 copies outside the capital.

Last year the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe (RFE) lost their broadcast licences in Azerbaijan. However, RFE still has its webpage where critical and independent materials can be read. The Internet is the only means of expression for independent press, though for how long is still a mystery because the government has already announced it will introduce licences and regulations for online media. Furthermore, the Azeri’s access to Internet is limited by the very high prices and a provider under government control. An independent news site rarely exceeds 2.000 unique visitors per day.

We asked what the taboo subjects in the Azerbaijan press are and we were given a list of all the profitable businesses belonging to the state: the Oil Fund, the SOCAR company, details regarding spending public money on constructions and infrastructure. The same goes for the Heydar Aliyev Foundation run by the president’s wife, a sort of a secret cabinet. Apparently Ilham Aliyev doesn’t take criticism too well: ‘If you criticize any member of the Aliyev clan, you risk being beaten on the street. If you write anything about the president’s wife, you will surely be beaten on the street’, Emin explains.

Here one can sign a petition for the liberation of the two bloggers arrested for having posted a satire against the corruption of Azerbaijan.