Khadija Ismayilova commands an audience. It’s the first thing you notice about her, in a country ruled overwhelmingly by men, whether you are in her office or on the other end of her nightly broadcast.
In Azerbaijan, although the press is nominally free, reporters are routinely harassed, beaten, jailed, and even murdered. But Ismayilova is on the air two hours a day, five days a week, demanding that government officials, opposition leaders, and other public figures acknowledge their mistakes and explain themselves. For her, no topic is off-limits and every issue is fodder for debate. During one recent show, she held forth on Azerbaijan’s economy, quizzing two guests on why the country ranked so poorly in the Heritage Foundation’s recently released Index of Economic Freedom. Then, she moved on to the rather heady question of whether Azerbaijan—a small, former Soviet state nestled between Russia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea—has any sort of ideology.
As she spoke, Ismayilova’s three male producers fiddled with dials, screened calls, and read the texts and e-mails that were pouring in. Whenever there was something worth reading on the air, they sent her an instant message. One caller complained that the nine members of his family were living in a two-bedroom apartment while the country’s ruling class got rich off of oil money. Another argued that Azerbaijan’s ideology is set only by the president.
Ismayilova draws an audience of more than 10,000 listeners each day, in a country of roughly 9 million. While many journalists censor themselves, Ismayilova is famous for her dogged, devil’s advocate approach to questioning her guests. When members of Azerbaijan’s opposition party come on to her show, they ask her to bring on a representative from New Azerbaijan, the country’s ruling party. “They say I’m much tougher to take on than the ruling party,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m mean to everyone,” she continued. “That’s the way I like my show.”
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