As a reporter, Ms. Ismayilova uncovered hidden financial links in the telecommunications, construction, gold mining, hotel, media and airline services industries in Azerbaijan. Then, in 2014, she was arrested and imprisoned. The money flows and property holdings she exposed belonged to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and his family, who used their positions to vastly enrich themselves.
Mr. Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan as a personal fiefdom, succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, who also ran the oil-rich former Soviet republic for more than a decade. Both have shown a predilection for the iron fist. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 166th out of 180 countries and regions in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House says Azerbaijan is “not free” and adds, “Constitutional guarantees for press freedom are routinely and systematically violated, as the government works to maintain a tight grip on the information landscape. Defamation remains a criminal offense. Journalists — and their relatives — faced harassment, threats, violence, and intimidation by authorities. Many have been detained or imprisoned on fabricated charges, while others face travel bans.”
The latest insult is a tax bill the government says Ms. Ismayilova must pay for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She was the RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service’s Baku bureau chief from 2008 to 2010. Ms. Ismayilova says there are no taxes to pay — the organization is a nonprofit — and the charges are part of a wider pressure campaign against her. She says the government accuses her of illegal entrepreneurship because, lacking foreign ministry accreditation, “all the money I earn from foreign media is illegal.” She told Voice of America that she is still fighting to acquire the honorarium from a UNESCO award she won in 2016. She is also under a travel ban, and her bank accounts have been frozen.
In January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Ms. Ismayilova’s 2013 complaint that Azerbaijani authorities mishandled a blackmail campaign against her. She received a threatening letter with still photographs taken from a video secretly made in her bedroom of her having sex with her then-boyfriend. The letter demanded she “refrain from what you are doing, otherwise you will be shamed.” Soon thereafter, the video was posted on the Internet.
Ms. Ismayilova discovered secret cameras in her apartment and demanded an investigation. The European Court found that it was not possible to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the Azerbaijani government had carried out the smear. But, the court said, the government had botched the investigation and failed to protect Ms. Ismayilova’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression. She was awarded about $19,000 in damages and court costs. It was a small pushback against Azerbaijan’s relentless repression of journalists and free speech. Now, another Western response is needed to protect this courageous journalist from renewed persecution.