Life is full of surprises. In Eurasia, authoritarian leaders and their entourages like to pull them out around the holidays. What made my eyes open wide this season was a news report from Azerbaijan, dated December 29. The Baku-based Trend news agency said President Ilham Aliyev had been given the “Journalists’ Friend Award” by the Azerbaijani Committee for the Protection of Journalists. That’s the same President Aliyev whose government is imprisoning newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev in defiance of two rulings by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.
So is the award a bad joke? Just the day before this “honor” was bestowed, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Fatullayev must spend another New Year’s Day behind bars rather than with his family at home. The court pulled out its rubberstamp to rule that Fatullayev could not be freed while he appeals a fabricated drug possession charge.
Azerbaijan is a serial jailer and oppressor of the press. Just three years ago, the government was jailing nine journalists in cases fabricated by prosecutors and rubberstamped by courts loyal to Aliyev. One of those journalists later died in prison after being denied proper medical treatment.
If you need more reasons the Azerbaijani leader should not be called a friend of journalists, check our website: There are plenty of cases of attacks, intimidation, and arrests of independent journalists and media organizations. Authorities are not so zealous in solving crimes against journalists. Azerbaijani police have yet to solve the 2005 murder of independent journalist Elmar Huseynov.
And that brings us back to Fatullayev. The editor of two now-closed newspapers, Fatullayev was imprisoned back in April 2007 on falsified charges brought in retaliation for his coverage of the Huseynov murder. Fatullayev said the murder was ordered by high-ranking officials in Baku and that authorities had engaged in a cover-up in the aftermath. CPJ honored Fatullayev with an International Press Freedom Award in 2009 in recognition of courageous reporting that cost him his freedom.
The group that gave Aliyev the curious award of “Journalists’ Friend” has a name that sounds an awful lot like our own, but it clearly has no connection to CPJ or with genuine protection of journalists. As with all authoritarian leaders, Aliyev can “win” any national award or title he wants. But in this instance, I’m sure even the award givers know that he is no ally of the press.