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The case of Khadija Ismayilova and her global supporting cast

On World Press Freedom Day 2016, IFEX salutes Khadija Ismayilova, winner of the 2016 UNESCO Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize, and brings into the spotlight some of the people around the world making sure that - even while in prison - her voice is louder than ever.

Members of Reporters Without Borders protest against Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during his visit to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Berlin, 21 January 2015.
Members of Reporters Without Borders protest against Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during his visit to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Berlin, 21 January 2015.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Every year, on World Press Freedom Day, the world acknowledges how the media help turn that right into a reality.

World. Press. Freedom. Three big, abstract words. But when press freedom is constrained, the impact is far from abstract. The rights of journalists to seek, receive and impart information and ideas are intimately connected to our right to do the same.

Consider three more words: Abuse of power. Whether or not you believe that power corrupts, when those in power happen to be corrupt, they have a multitude of means to keep their secrets firmly under the carpet. There is an ongoing war between their desire to hide corruption and the media's desire to uncover it.

The numbers can be staggering. Nearly 800 journalists killed in the last 10 years, in the course of their work. 199 were jailed in 2015 alone. And for every death there are countless others who are harassed, threatened, or attacked.

Behind the numbers are real individuals at risk – and beside them are real individuals who work to defend their rights. So today we single out one journalist, and the many who have taken on her cause.

Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning investigative journalist who started uncovering corruption within Azerbaijan's governing family. She is currently serving a 7.5-year prison sentence.

Khadija – the recipient of UNESCO's prestigious 2016 Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize – is a relatively high profile case. As we go to publish, she is still imprisoned – but her voice continues to resonate.

From the moment she was first harassed in 2011, to her current imprisonment, individuals and groups around the world have stepped up to defend her rights and the principle of press freedom that is at stake.

Meet The Supporting Cast

1. Fellow journalists and colleagues

From the beginning, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has been key to ensuring that efforts of the powerful to silence Khadija will fail. The OCCRP is a joint program of regional investigative centers and independent media stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. It works with local journalists to support investigative journalism and uncover corruption. Through the OCCRP, Khadija's media colleagues inside and outside of Azerbaijan started The Khadija Project as a way to ensure that her work could continue in spite of her imprisonment. With support from an anonymous whistleblower and a network of citizen journalists, they worked on and published stories about the corruption she had been uncovering.

On 7 April 2016, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a grassroots non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting around the world, selected The Khadija Project to receive its prestigious Tom Renner Award. In the judges' words, The Khadija Project's reports “decoded a maze-like series of ownership structures that revealed the nation's president and his family control powerful business interests, despite national law prohibiting the president or first lady from holding ownership stakes in private firms.”

2. Advocacy groups and concerned citizens

Civil society groups and press freedom organisations – IFEX members included – have worked continually to shine a global spotlight on her case, publishing scores of statements calling for Khadija's release and for charges to be dropped against her, organising letter-writing campaigns, and recognising her at their awards ceremonies.

The European Games, held in Baku, Azerbaijan in June 2015, provided a focal point to bring attention to the dire human rights situation there, including Khadija's imprisonment. With encouragement from the IFEX network and the Sport for Rights campaign, people from all over the world took over the official #Baku2015 hashtag. Tweets flooded the tag condemning Azerbaijan's repression of freedom of expression and demanding freedom for these unjustly imprisoned defenders of free expression, including Khadija Ismayilova.

In addition to sustained campaigning on Khadija's behalf, free expression NGOs led two international interventions this year at the European Court of Human Rights - one on 19 January and one on 19 April. Organisations involved in these interventions included PEN International, Privacy International, ARTICLE 19, International Media Support (IMS), the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship, the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, PEN American Center, Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights & World Organization against Torture, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Human Rights House Foundation.
3. The late-night host and the pop star

British comic John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, poked fun at everything about the European Games, from the sports events featured to the “ridiculous” mascots. His commentary included the fact that the authorities did not permit journalists from The Guardian to enter Azerbaijan, and that the country was mistreating its own journalists, including Khadija.

Acting on a request from the Sport for Rights campaign, Irish rock band U2 called out the Azerbaijani authorities for preventing Amnesty International from entering the country prior to the European Games. During performances in June 2015, Bono pointed to a screen projecting images of prominent political prisoners, including Khadija, while announcing, "And a message to President Aliyev. And that message is this, sir: If anything happens to one of our friends, we will hold you responsible!”

4. The European Union, the European Parliament and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

On 11 December 2014, the European Union published a statement noting that Khadija's arrest and pre-trial detention was “a step against the freedom of expression which is key to any democratic society.”

On 1 September 2015, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, condemned the prison sentence handed down to Khadija. “Khadija Ismayilova pays for her courageous work as investigative journalist in a country where critical voices are muzzled one after the other. This sentence strikes yet another blow to respect for human rights and adherence to democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan,” Muižnieks stated.

That same month, the European Parliament published a resolution strongly condemning “...the unprecedented repression against civil society in Azerbaijan” and calling for charges to be dropped and for the release of Khadija and other journalists, activists and opposition voices. The resolution also called on the EU authorities to investigate the corruption allegations against President Aliyev and his family revealed by Khadija Ismaylova, and “calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to respect freedom of the press and media, both in legislation and in practice and both online and offline, to guarantee freedom of expression in line with international standards and to end censorship of criticism of the via media outlets.”

5. The U.S. Helsinki Commission

In December 2015, in response to the Azerbaijani government's continued crackdown on independent journalists, civil society groups and opposition politicians, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chair Rep. Chris Smith introduced The Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015. The bill will deny U.S. entry visas to senior members of the Azerbaijani government, members of the judicial or security branches, and those “who derive significant financial benefit from business dealings with senior leadership.”

The bill also notes that financial penalties should be considered. “It is unacceptable that senior members of the Azerbaijani government are free to visit the United States while courageous women and men like investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova….are locked away in prisons with inadequate access to legal or even medical assistance” Rep. Smith said in a press release introducing the bill. “If they can pay the price for standing up for human rights, the least we can do is to stand with them.”

Our world is safer when journalists have the freedom to expose corruption and hold the powerful accountable, and that is exactly what Khadija Ismayilova did in Azerbaijan

6. The lawyers

On 14 March 2016, Amal Clooney, an award-winning barrister specializing in international law and human rights, and Nani Jansen, Legal Director at the Media Legal Defence Initiative, submitted a filing to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Ismayilova, providing observations on the admissibility and merits of Ismayilova v. Azerbaijan (Application no. 30778/15). Clooney and Jansen argue that there is no reasonable suspicion that Khadija committed any of the crimes she was charged with, and that her detention is politically-motivated.

On 21 and 22 April 2016, Clooney visited Washington, D.C., where she met with Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov and representatives from the White House and State Department, as well as members of the House of Representatives and Senate. As a result of these meetings, Doughty Street Chambers reports that on 26 April 2016, the State Department called for Khadija's release, and Senator Ben Cardin raised her case in the Senate.

Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, also expressed his support for Khadija following a meeting with Amal Clooney. “Our world is safer when journalists have the freedom to expose corruption and hold the powerful accountable,” McGovern said, according to a statement e-mailed to The Washington Post, “and that is exactly what Khadija Ismayilova did in Azerbaijan. I am proud to join Amal Clooney in the push to free Khadija and urge the White House and every member of Congress to join me in this effort.”

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney arrives to attend a hearing at the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, 28 January 2015.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney arrives to attend a hearing at the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, 28 January 2015.

REUTERS/Vincent Kessler


Every year UNESCO awards the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honouring those who have made “an outstanding contribution to the defence and, or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, and especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.” On 8 April, 2016, UNESCO announced that Khadija was the 2016 recipient. The award will be presented at the World Press Freedom Day celebration in Helsinki, Finland, on 3 May 2016.

Khadija, still in prison, will not be able to attend. But many of those committed groups and individuals who dedicate their time and resources to defend and support individuals like Khadija who put their lives at risk for press freedom – they will be there.

And consider this: Syrian lawyer and free expression advocate Mazen Darwish was in a Syrian prison when he was awarded this same prize in 2015. He was freed on August 10, 2015.

If, like Darwish, Khadija is released, be sure that a rousing cry of victory will be heard around the world from her entire supporting cast, and all who know that without a free press we can never be free.

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