September 4, 2017 at 8:19 PM
TO CELEBRATE "National Press Day" in Azerbaijan on July 22, President Ilham Aliyev announced the award of 255 apartments to journalists. Four years ago, he inaugurated an apartment building for journalists and gave away 155 flats. Both times, Mr. Aliyev used the same words. "Freedom of speech" is "ensured" in Azerbaijan, he declared.
So goes the topsy-turvy world of Azerbaijan's strongman, who talks about freedom but behaves like a tyrant. Under Mr. Aliyev, a sustained and punishing campaign has been waged against dissenting scholars, human rights defenders and journalists. One of those who suffered was Khadija Ismayilova, the Baku correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose courageous investigations exposed the hidden wealth accumulated by Mr. Aliyev's family members and other inconvenient truths, and landed her in prison. Ms. Ismayilova, who was released in May 2016 after 18 months, responded to the announcement of apartment gifts by praising those who "overcame their yearnings and did not receive flats as a bribe."
Mr. Aliyev, who succeeded his father as leader of the oil-rich former Soviet republic, rules by fear and rewards those who remain loyal. Consider the latest example: The Azeri authorities have jailed Mehman Aliyev (no relation to the president), who is director of Turan, Azerbaijan's last remaining independent news outlet, on charges of violating an Azeri law on grants. The authorities have also launched an investigation of the media group on charges of tax evasion and other offenses. All the allegations appear to be an attempt to intimidate the editor and the organization. Turan, founded in 1990, has reported on a wide array of political, economic and social issues, but apparently what irritated the president most was a hint of disloyalty.
According to a July 19 report from the RFE/RL Azeri service, just before the press holiday, Mr. Aliyev publicly said the government had asked him three years ago to nominate journalists from Turan to get free apartments. He said he had refused, asserting that journalists should remain independent, and that to accept gifts from the government is akin to taking a bribe. Then, within weeks, the crackdown began.
On Aug. 7, the taxation ministry said Turan was under investigation for alleged failure to pay proper taxes on grants under a law that has been criticized in the past as giving the authorities unlimited power over those who receive grants. On Aug. 16, authorities raided Turan, confiscating documents and a computer. On Aug. 25, a court in Baku placed Mr. Aliyev in pretrial detention for three months; if convicted, he faces a maximum seven-year prison sentence. Turan's bank accounts have been frozen, and the staff announced it would suspend operations.
The Turan chief is not alone — other journalists and bloggers continue to languish in Azerbaijan's jails. They should all be released. Meanwhile, no one should be fooled by the president's fancy words about a free press nor by his corrosive practice of buying off journalists. The truth cannot be jailed or bribed.