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Anti-corruption journalist receives threats, explicit images

(IRFS/IFEX) - The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety strongly condemns a blackmail attempt against RFE/RL freelance reporter Khadija Ismayilova as a despicable action that seeks to silence a journalist.

On 7 March 2012, award-winning Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova received an envelope in the mail containing photographs of an intimate nature and a threatening note. The letter said that unless she stops "behaving improperly", she will be "defamed."

It seems, however, that it will take more than this crude action to weaken Ismayilova's commitment to free expression and professional journalism. In a statement on Facebook, Ismayilova said, "This threat is not a surprise for me. I have been doing investigative journalism for a long time. My investigations have included the secret business of President Ilham Aliyev's family and have documented corruption at the highest level, disclosing the offshore businesses of members of the ruling family. Currently I am working on several investigative reports. I have sent inquires to government offices about ruling family businesses. For a long time, my journalistic activities have been a source of concern for the government. I have been the subject of attacks and slander in pro-government newspapers. I have been absurdly accused of having Armenian relatives and working for foreign intelligence. Many of my colleagues have been subjected to blackmail with discrediting information and I have been expecting new dirty blackmailing moves from people who are stealing public money. I was envisioning this and was ready to face it." She added that she "will continue her professional activity and work, because the journalist who respects the profession cannot act otherwise."

Ismayilova has written numerous investigative articles exposing corruption among high-ranking Azerbaijani officials and their families, causing public scandal. She has been targeted by pro-government forces prior to this incident. The state media have repeatedly published smear articles containing false information about Ismayilova.

IRFS believes that local intelligence agencies are behind this latest nasty action. Ismayilova is not the first Azerbaijani journalist to fall victim to such an attack. Other victims include the editor-in-chief of the "Azadliq" newspaper, Ganimat Zahid, as well as finance director Azer Ahmadov and reporters Natig Gulahmadoglu and Gan Tural. Video clips containing intimate scenes were posted on the Internet, in violation of the journalists' privacy. This pattern indicates that the Azerbaijani government, illegally deploying the technical and human resources of intelligence agencies, repeatedly organises centralized smear campaigns against journalists who publish material critical of the government.

IRFS regrets to note that the Azerbaijani government employs a range of tactics in opposition to free expression, including arrests of journalists, lack of commitment to investigations of assassinations of journalists and illegal violation of the right to privacy.

IRFS recalls that the first provocation of this kind occurred in February 2005, and that Ganimat Zahid and Azer Ahmadov were the victims. Then, on 2 March 2005, a week after the incident involving Zahid and Ahmadov, well-known independent journalist Elmar Huseynov was shot dead on his doorstep.

Natig Gulahmadoglu and Gan Tural have also been targeted with hidden cameras in recent years. And, in November 2011, journalist-writer Rafig Tagi was murdered and four journalists were arrested under false charges in Azerbaijan.

Nonetheless, impunity prevails. None of these cases has resulted in the arrest or conviction of the perpetrators, leading to suspicion that state officials are behind the criminal actions against these journalists.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to identify and punish the person or persons behind the attack on Ismayilova, to free all journalists arrested for political reasons, to identify and apprehend the perpetrators of the murders of Huseynov and Tagi and to demonstrate tolerance toward freedom of expression.

In light of Azerbaijan's obligation to protect freedom of expression undertaken before the UN, Council of Europe and OSCE, IRFS calls on these international organisations to remain aware of the freedom of expression situation in Azerbaijan and to demand that the Azerbaijani government respect the rights of journalists.
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