Blackmail and corruption in Azerbaijan: Khadija Ismayilova’s hunt for the truth and the price she pays to inform the public
“It was accidental that I became a journalist,” explains Khadija Ismayilova, a well-known Azerbaijani radio reporter who received international attention when she was blackmailed and publicly defamed earlier this year. “One day, they didn’t have anyone to send to a news conference and they sent me. I came back with a story and…they liked it,” she said. At the time, Ismayilova was working as a translator at the offices of a newspaper in Baku. She was young and trying to help her family by earning extra income. Gradually, Ismayilova traded her job as a translator for one as a reporter. In her early years of the profession, Ismayilova said, “I was not as serious and outspoken.”
Everything changed in 2005, when prominent investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered near his home in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
“They killed him at his doorstep. It was March 2, 2005,” Ismayilova remembers. “And the first thing I thought when I heard that he was killed was ‘it’s my responsibility too. It’s my fault as well, because he was doing it alone’…We all were doing this easy journalism and he was doing the uncovering…alone.”
From that day, Ismayilova has made it her mission to ensure that the space of critical investigative reporting is not void in Azerbaijan. She hosts a weekly program on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service, where she reports on corruption and malfeasance in the country’s government and the unethical business dealings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family.
In an environment of increasing opacity, Ismayilova uses exhaustive research of public and corporate records to find evidence of exploitation in the government’s highest ranks.
In May of this year, she uncovered that the multi-million dollar event hall constructed for the 2012 Eurovision singing competition was built in part by a subcontractor in which the first family has hidden ownership. Ismayilova has revealed covert holdings by the president’s wife and daughters in various telecommunications, construction and mining companies, many of which receive state contracts.
She also works with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, where she trains other journalists on investigative techniques and cross-border reporting.
“I’m trying to make sure I’m not the only one who does this,” Ismayilova said. “And I’m not. I have students who are doing this, I have colleagues. If they kill me, silence will not fall.”
Her concern is not unjustified. Ismayilova has been routinely besmirched in those media controlled by the ruling party in her country. They call her a “servant of enemies,” among other things.
Efforts to discredit Ismayilova reached new heights in March 2012, when she became the target of a massive smear campaign that threatened to humiliate her and put her life at risk unless she stopped reporting.
A letter was sent anonymously to Ismayilova calling her a “whore” and instructing her to “behave.” The package contained photos taken covertly of Ismayilova in an intimate situation with her boyfriend. It was clear the images came from a camera hidden in the reporter’s apartment. In a country where “honor killings” still take place, to expose photos with sexual content can be life-threatening for the subject.
In spite of the dangers, Ismayilova said, “When I got that blackmail letter, anger was bigger than fear.”
Some media outlets received the compromising images. The blackmailer threatened to put video footage from Ismayilova’s bedroom – also taken with a hidden camera – online. “There were lots of cases of blackmail of journalists,” Ismayilova said. “I was totally aware of the risk.”
Immediately, Ismayilova made the decision not to give in to her blackmailer’s demands. She concentrated on presenting her regular 90 minute radio program, which was set to air the day she received the threatening letter.
The video was posted online. Before and after, Ismayilova said, she was encouraged by messages of support from fellow journalists and others in her country. Her friends took up shifts guarding her apartment, since the government refused to provide protection for her during the incident.
The experience has affected Ismayilova’s sense of security. She assumes that she is “under surveillance everywhere.” After the blackmailing, she bought a camping tent that she set up in her family home. She planned to sit in it to be alone, calling it “an investment to buy privacy.”
She used it once. “When I was packing it back up, I realized how stupid it is,” she said. “I will not allow them to decide the way I live.”
She continues to face slander in state-run media. As part of its “investigation” into the blackmail, the government prosecutor’s office published the names and personal information of her boyfriend, friends and family. When Ismayilova objected, she was told by a state official that she shouldn’t complain about privacy since she is “imposing on the president’s privacy.”
Ismayilova says the government was the instigator of the threats against her. She tracked down a telephone company employee who told her that he had been ordered to install a new line to her apartment, which she never asked for. The employee saw at least one unidentified individual who went inside Ismayilova’s home to lay the indoor portion of the line, which was used for tapping. She discovered that the camera in her bedroom was planted there in July 2011 – eight months before the blackmail.
The Azerbaijani government has a long history of attempts to quash free press. Crimes against journalists are committed with impunity. The 2005 murder of Elmar Huseynov, Ismayilova’s call to action, was never solved. The 2011 murder of another journalist, Rafig Tagi, has also gone unpunished. Dozens of journalists have been beaten and attacked; more have been imprisoned for “hooliganism”, defamation or treason.
In 2008, the national government banned all international stations, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s service in Azerbaijan (Radio Azadliq) from broadcasting on local frequencies. It was decided these frequencies were property of the government. Ismayilova said RFE/RL now disseminates its programming, including her show, through satellite and the Internet.
Ismayilova’s investigations into government corruption are dangerous, she acknowledges. But “it doesn’t seem a good enough reason to stop doing it,” she said. “Corruption is still happening…they are still using their positions to enrich their families.” Asked if she has ever been tempted to quit reporting, Ismayilova doesn’t pause. “Never,” she said. “Good journalists are always in need, even when there is a democracy in place. When things are okay in my country, I will go somewhere else – where I am needed.”
Khadija Ismayilova is the first Courage in Journalism Award winner from Azerbaijan.
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