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Azerbaijani Journalist Defiant In Face Of Blackmail Bid


Khadija Ismayilova: "No matter what they pour on me, no matter what kind of disgusting measures they take against me, it doesn't stop me."
Khadija Ismayilova: "No matter what they pour on me, no matter what kind of disgusting measures they take against me, it doesn't stop me."
Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova wasn't surprised when the envelope finally came.

For several years now, she has prepared story after story for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and other media detailing corruption in the highest echelons of the country's government -- including the vast financial holdings of President Ilham Aliyev and his family.

So it was no surprise when she opened an envelope on March 7 with intimate photographs and a note calling her a "whore" and saying that if she didn't "behave," she would be "defamed."

Ismayilova immediately went public with the threat.

"[On March 7], I made a public statement and I made it clear that it is not going to stop me. And no matter what they pour on me, no matter what kind of disgusting measures they take against me, it doesn't stop me," Ismayilova says. "I'm absolutely sure about my stand. I'm absolutely sure."

In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Ismayilova said the government must investigate the incident and urged Aliyev to take responsibility for her safety.

Ismayilova is RFE/RL's former Baku bureau chief and currently hosts the popular "After Work" daily talk show. She also writes for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and other media and has received numerous awards for her reporting. A 2011 expose on the commercial interests of Aliyev's daughters won an internal RFE/RL Story of the Year award.

'No Place In Civil Society'

RFE/RL President Steven Korn, who plans to be in Baku next week, called the incident a "hideous attempt at blackmail that has no place in civil society."

"We are proud of Khadija and we stand behind her and her work," Korn said in a statement.

OCCRP Advising Editor Andrew Sullivan expressed his organization's complete support for Ismailova in the face of "a clear attempt to intimidate a journalist who is simply doing her job."

Azerbaijani journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered in 2005.
Azerbaijani journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered in 2005.
"This was a thuggish act that will not intimidate but rather motivate all of us to work harder to uncover the crime and corruption that is destroying democracy, transparency, and accountability in Azerbaijan," Sullivan said.

The photographs were also sent to at least two newspapers in Azerbaijan; no one has published them.

Ismayilova has previously received threats and been the target of scurrilous articles in Azerbaijani state media. A January 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable that was released by the WikiLeaks website described a meeting between Aliyev and then-U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza at which Aliyev called for Ismayilova to be fired because she was "a longtime opposition activist who considers herself to be an enemy of the government."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned the latest threats against Ismayilova and called on Azerbaijani authorities to guarantee her safety and bring the blackmailers to justice. CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, Nina Ognianova, described Ismayilova as one of Azerbaijan's “bravest and most respected independent journalists.”

'Dire' Situation For Reporters

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."

In March 2005, journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered outside his Baku apartment building. That case has never been solved.

In 2010, two weeks before the country's legislative elections, state television aired a secretly taped sex video of journalist Azer Ahmedov of the independent newspaper "Azadliq."

Writer Rafiq Tagi was brutally stabbed in November and died in hospital.
Writer Rafiq Tagi was brutally stabbed in November and died in hospital.
In November 2011, writer and journalist Rafiq Tagi, who also wrote for RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, was brutally stabbed. He died in a hospital four days later.

Azerbaijani investigative journalist Shahveled Chobanoglu says the long years of media repression have resulted in public apathy.

"Azerbaijani journalists like Khadija Ismailova live and work under such threats, even death threats. This is the reality in Azerbaijan and it is not new," Chobanoglu says. "This kind of trend has continued for many years and this incident has not produced a major reaction in our society. Normally, such a blackmailing would shake up the whole society and the state."

Global Support

But in Ismayilova's case, something different may be happening. In just 24 hours, hundreds of activists on Facebook expressed support for her and launched an effort to back her up. RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service has also received hundreds of messages of support from around the country and globally.

The opposition Popular Front Party issued a statement condemning the blackmail attempt and demanding that the government end the harassment of journalists.

Meanwhile, Ismayilova is in the studio just like she would be on any normal day, preparing her next program and full of determination.

"They killed Elmar Huseynov and he stopped. And they stopped many other journalists from doing their job with intimidation and bribing and blackmailing. It is not going to stop me," she says. "This practice [of intimidating journalists] needs to be stopped. And when they will understand that intimidation, blackmailing, killing, doesn't make silence, that there will be no silence after all this, they will understand that it is useless. They will stop doing that. And I think the least I can do is to continue and fight back."

With RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service reporting