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In Azerbaijan, a journalist under siege

July 26, 2013

By Amanda Erickson

 Khadija Ismayilova

Khadija Ismayilova

It was supposed to be a punishment—220 hours plucking garbage off the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan.

Instead, journalist Khadija Ismayilova turned her community service assignment into an impromptu rally for change. In a Facebook post, Ismayilova told supporters she would be “sweeping for democracy,” bringing attention to the corruption and human rights abuses that plague the oil-rich country. Activists, journalists, and friends pledged to join her during the day.

For that, she faces the possibility of three months in jail.

Ismayilova is a rarity in Azerbaijan—an award-winning journalist who has exposed illegality and misdeeds by autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev and his family. She reports for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she also hosts a daily two-hour call-in show.

Ismayilova’s most recent run-in with the law began in January, when she was arrested for attending an unsanctioned anti-government rally in the center of the city. She refused to pay the 400-manat (roughly $510) fine, calling the charge “unconstitutional.”

She was sentenced to sweep the streets, but when government officials caught wind of the blossoming rally, they switched her to cleaning a rehabilitation center for the disabled.

Ismayilova refused—other activists have reportedly been beaten while performing indoor work. The government is now threatening to lock her up for at least three months. “They think they can humiliate me, but it’s not true,” Ismayilova says. “I want to use this as an opportunity to deliver a message.”

Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet country nestled between Iran and Russia, has an abysmal free speech record. The country ranks in the bottom quarter of Reporters Without Borders’sPress Freedom Index; the organization describes Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as a “predator of press freedom.” Journalists and editors are routinely beaten, jailed, blackmailed, and even murdered.

In 2008, reporter Agil Khalil fled the country after several attempts on his life. In 2010, bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade were imprisoned for producing a jokey video about donkeys. That same year, a sex tape of an opposition newspaper editor was leaked, effectively ending his career. (Though most of Azerbaijan’s media is state-controlled, there are a handful of independent outlets.) Read more at Columbia Journalism Review.

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