Azerbaijan must halt smear campaign against reporter

New York, March 14, 2012–Azerbaijani authorities must carry out a swift investigation into the ongoing smear campaign against journalist Khadija Ismailova, ensure her safety, and bring the perpetrators to justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

A video of a personal nature, purportedly depicting Ismailova, was published today on a website that had been created on Sunday, Emin Huseynov, the director of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, told CPJ. Links to the video were then distributed via social media, Huseynov said.

Ismailova, a reporter for the Azeri-language service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was investigating President Ilham Aliyev’s family’s alleged interests in lucrative construction projects in Baku ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, a popular international event the country is hosting in May. But the journalist told CPJ she had been subjected to a public campaign of intimidation since early March, including in the state-owned media. “I am not planning to stop my investigations, but will continue them. If they think they will stop me this way, they are wrong,” she said.

“We are incensed by this contemptible effort to silence Khadija Ismailova, and demand that Azerbaijani authorities investigate and put a halt to it immediately,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “The participation of state-owned press in this disgraceful smear campaign amounts to officially sanctioned extortion and brings disrepute on national leaders who claim to welcome journalists from more than 40 countries for the Eurovision Song Contest.”

The state-owned newspaper Yeni Azerbaijan published an article on Tuesday that said Ismailova led an immoral life and was corrupt, the journalist told CPJ. Prior to that, on March 7, she said she received a threatening letter along with intimate photographs in the mail. The note said she would be “hugely embarrassed” unless she stopped her reporting on corruption. Ismailova reported the threats to the Ministry of Interior and the General Prosecutor’s office, she told CPJ, but there had been no investigation yet.

Journalists in Azerbaijan are frequently subjected to smear or intimidation campaigns as punitive action and are sometimes forced to leave the country, CPJ research shows. In 2008, government-controlled media aired and published reports smearing Agil Khalil, a journalist with the opposition daily Azadlyg (Freedom). In 2005, prominent editor and government critic Genimet Zakhidov was subjected to a similar intimidation campaign.