An investigative journalist with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service says she will not be intimidated following the release on the Internet of a video purporting to show her engaged in sexual activities.
Khadija Ismayilova, a correspondent and talk-show host for RFE/RL, said the blackmail campaign is aimed at halting her investigations into corruption and the financial dealings of President Ilham Aliyev and his family and that it will not silence her.
"If they meant to stop me by this, I can assure you they have been wrong. They failed to do so," Ismayilova said. "I continue doing my investigations. I will publish my investigations as soon as I finish the story. If they meant to stop me, they have failed. If they meant to defame me, they have failed, because I have received the full support of my friends. Even religious figures of the country have expressed their support."
In a statement issued on March 14, RFE/RL President Steven Korn -- who was in Baku from March 11-13 -- said his support for Ismailova is unshaken.
"We support Khadija completely and applaud her courage in helping RFE/RL provide the people of Azerbaijan what they cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate," Korn said. "The value and truth of Khajida's work speak for themselves, and those attempting to blacken her name should be the ones hanging their heads in shame."
Defamation Lawsuit Planned
The video was posted on a website that was created on March 11 and has a URL that falsely suggests a connection with Azerbaijan's opposition Musavat (Equality) Party.
On March 12, "Yeni Azerbaycan," the newspaper of the country's ruling party, published an unsigned article
attacking Ismayilova and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. Ismayilova says she plans to take legal action against the newspaper for defaming her and her family.
If they meant to stop me, they have failed. If they meant to defame me, they have failed."
Last week, Ismayilova was mailed photographs taken from the video, along with a note telling her she would be "defamed" if she did not "behave." Two newspapers also received the photographs but did not publish them.
Ismayilova has received vocal support both within the country and from media-freedom advocacy groups such as Freedom House and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Azerbaijani human rights activist Lejla Yunus, who heads Baku's Institute for Peace and Democracy, says the campaign against Ismayilova and RFE/RL is part of a larger effort to intimidate society.
"The single aim of this criminal-mafia structure that has taken over Azerbaijan is that all of us [are] living in fear, that everybody will be afraid -- afraid that he can be arrested, that he can be tortured, that he can be kidnapped, that he can be raped -- men and women," Yunus said. "They can do everything with everybody."
A spokesman for the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry told RFE/RL that an investigation has been launched into a complaint Ismayilova filed on March 9 regarding the initial blackmail attempt and that she will receive a response within the 10 days mandated by law.
Dangerous Place For Journalists
Rashid Hacili, the head of the Baku Media Rights Institute, called on police to investigate the case fully.
"While the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor-general are conducting their investigation, this video is being distributed on the Internet. A new crime is being committed before their very eyes," Hacili said. "Now they have to investigate, determine [the facts], and provide information about who has spread this video."
Azerbaijan is a dangerous place for journalists. It ranked 143rd out of 183 countries in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index by the NGO Transparency International. Freedom House's 2011 "Freedom of the Press" report describes the situation in the country as "dire."
"The authorities continue to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions," the report says. "Violence against journalists has not abated and the media is harassed with impunity."
Written by Robert Coalson