Civil Society, Europe, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

Sex and Censorship in Azerbaijan

BRUSSELS, May 2 2012 (IPS) - Khadija Ismayilova sat calmly, her face, voice and movements doing nothing to break the composed demeanour with which she recounted the Azeri government’s attempt to completely discredit her as a journalist.

In early March, Ismayilova received a package containing six photos of herself having sex, taken from hidden cameras planted inside her home by unknown persons.

The package contained more than just intimate pictures of the journalist responsible for uncovering cases of corruption within the government – there was a clear message of intimidation, filled with coarse language and insults, meant to deter not only Ismayilova, but anyone else from further investigating the government’s actions.

But Ismayilova has a message of her own. Despite the intimacy of the smear campaign, she went public with her story, in the hopes of embarrassing the government by exposing the illegal means they employ to intimidate journalists and rights activists within the country.

Then a video of the journalist, in the same explicit situation, appeared on a fake mirror website of Azerbaijan’s main opposition party, according to Amnesty International, though party leaders have stoutly denied connections between their party and the website in question.

In a conservative country like Azerbaijan, Ismayilova believes the government hoped to use the video and photographs to discredit her work.

Deadly censorship

She is not the first victim of this crude tactic. Other journalists before her have been subject to public humiliation by sexually explicit images of themselves being aired on television but she is the first to speak out openly about it.

And Ismayilova’s story is only the latest in a string of crackdowns on journalists within the country.

President Ilham Aliyev, who abolished presidential term limits in 2009, has a web of family members in positions of power throughout the country, which has piqued the interest of Azeri journalists working to investigate corruption and probe the reaches of government control.

According to Ismayilova, the president’s cousin runs a television channel that aired images of an opposition journalist masturbating.

For others, investigative journalism has been undertaken not only at the cost of civil rights and liberties, but also their lives. As of March 2012, Ismayilova said seven journalists had been kidnapped, and two more were being held without access to lawyers or contact with family members.

Elmar Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist who reported on politics and corruption, was shot to death in the stairway of his apartment building on Mar. 2, 2005. His family reported that the journalist had received threats prior to his death, and feared for his safety.

Seven years later, the investigation is at a standstill, and no one has been brought to justice for the loss of his life. Head of the Central Asia and Europe desk for Reporters Without Borders, Johann Bihr, called the case “a threat that constantly hangs over (journalists, members of the opposition party and human rights defenders)” in an article in ‘Running Scared: Azerbaijan’s Silenced Voices’, a publication from the International Partnership Group for Azerbaijan (IPGA).

“In virtually no case of violence against a journalist since Huseynov’s murder has there been a serious investigation or prosecution for an attack. The result is a climate of fear in which journalists know that, should they decide to criticise the authorities, they are vulnerable to attacks that are either organised or endorsed by officials,” Bihr said.

With concerns over freedom of expression in the country, 10 members of the European Parliament issued a letter to Commissioner Štefan Füle, asking that the government of Azerbaijan and President Ilham Aliyev be “taken to task” to ensure the safety of Khadija Ismayilova and to create an environment that allows journalists and human rights activists to “work free from intimidation, blackmail and violence.”

Freedom of expression

Opposition journalists are not the lone targets of government efforts to muzzle free speech. Citizens have been forbidden from protesting in Baku since 2005 and state forces used harsh measures against activists who took to the streets in March and April 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring.

Ismayilova explained the only freedom of assembly allowed in Azerbaijan is outside the Baku city limits, a half-hour walk from the nearest bus station.

The location is a dismal spot for vibrant political assembly. Ismayilova said, “No one can hear you…You can’t even reach the place.”

Social media is being monitored as well, with several youth activists jailed for promoting the Arab Spring protests on Facebook and Twitter. Parvana Persiyani, a blogger with the ‘OL!’ Youth Movement in Azerbaijan, said organisers of protests against current government policies have been jailed without access to attorneys or notice to their families.

Habbar Savalanli used Facebook to promote public protests surrounding the Arab Spring, and was given a jail sentence of two and a half years on bogus drug charges, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). He was released in December 2011.

According to HRW, Azerbaijan has refused entry to a Council of Europe representative to look into the condition of political prisoners.

Azerbaijan was ranked 143rd out of 183 countries surveyed in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Transparency International.

Eurovision 2012

The influx of oil revenues in Azerbaijan has left the country flush with possibility, plans for vast expansion and the modernisation of a city gearing up to host the Eurovision Song Contest this summer, which draws more than 100 million viewers. But such expansion has paved the way for human rights violations, with HRW reporting that the government of Azerbaijan has forced people from their homes in claims of “urban renewal.”

According to HRW, the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t provided fair compensation or alternative housing options to those displaced by the construction projects.

Rasul Jafarov, coordinator of the Sing for Democracy campaign, said apartment buildings have rapidly been demolished, with or without the consent of those living there. Tenants who refused to cooperate faced forcible eviction after being detained for several hours, during which time their homes were destroyed.

While Azerbaijan has committed to granting Eurovision participants freedom of speech, HRW noted that the country systematically denies its own citizens these same freedoms.

But Ulrike Lunacek, a European Parliament member, said that simply boycotting the song contest was not enough – rather, efforts should focus on ensuring information on the state of the country is freely available.

“People in Azerbaijan don’t have access to the truth,” Ismayilova stressed. “And that is the core of the problems in the county.”

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