Open up the print version of today’s Washington Times, and out pops a standalone section titled “Azerbaijan: A Quarter Century Since Restoring Independence, A Thriving U.S. Ally.” In keeping with the tone of the title, the pieces inside argue why Azerbaijan “matters to the United States” (by Rep. Randy Weber); why Azerbaijan is a “strategic American ally that must receive our full support” (by Rep. Robert Aderholt); and how Azerbaijan’s “rich history with Jewish settlers opened door to Israel alliance” (by The Washington Times).
A tagline on the pullout’s cover declares, “A Special report Prepared By The Washington Times Advocacy Department.”
Ah, that explains the boosterish tone. It’s just a marketing thing. Surely the news and commentary sections of the same edition of the Washington Times wouldn’t contain promotional content about Azerbaijan!
That is, unless you count the piece on page B3 of today’s Opinion section. It’s titled “Why Azerbaijan is important to America and the free world.” Its concluding paragraph reads this way:
Azerbaijan’s swift rise is a testament to its leaders, its people and its strong partnership with the United States. As America and Azerbaijan continue to face common challenges to our increasingly common values and goals, U.S. officials should congratulate them for their total commitment to religious tolerance, freedom and democracy. America and the rest of the free world need more friends like Azerbaijan.
The piece’s author? Dan Burton, who is identified at the foot of the piece as “a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana. He served as chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.” Perhaps because of space constraints, the italicized tagline omits another credential of Burton’s: His status as the chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance.
Meanwhile, over here, there’s real news concerning this wonderful country: “Azerbaijan on Tuesday extended the pre-trial detention of a journalist critical of President Ilham Aliyev, prompting concern from Europe’s democracy watchdog OSCE about ‘rapidly deteriorating’ media freedoms in the ex-Soviet state,” reports Reuters.
That journalist is Khadija Ismayilova of the Azeri branch of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. According to this report, Ismayilova was jailed over a charge of encouraging a man to commit suicide, which she denies; the man is still alive. “Authorities have consistently harassed Ismayilova through smear campaigns, prosecution, and travel bans,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Also, meanwhile, the CPJ called Azerbaijan the “leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia.”
Rosemary Armao, an associate professor of Journalism/Communication at the State University of New York at Albany and a friend of Ismayilova’s, has written a letter to the Washington Times over the Burton column. “American aid ought to be on the side of democracy, freedom, and the Azeri people. It must be linked to reforms, greater transparency and, immediately, to the release of Khadija Ismayilova,” writes Armao, who has worked with Ismayilova on the southeast Europe-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. “Shame on you Rep. Burton for penning a false and deceitful column.”
Armao tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “There are virtually no independent journalists left in Azerbaijan.”
John Solomon, editor and vice president for content and business development for the Washington Times, says the omission of Burton’s role in the Azerbaijan America Alliance was a mistake. “I wish we’d caught it — my fault,” says Solomon. When Solomon saw that the special pullout on Azerbaijan was coming down the pike, he thought that Burton could provide a “geostrategic perspective” on the country’s relationship with the United States in the commentary section of the newspaper. “He did almost a tutorial” on the situation, says Solomon.
The Washington Times has updated the story to include mention of Burton’s connection to the alliance.
Updated at 7:00 p.m. to note update and to include response from Solomon.