Police officers restrain a protester in front of the Parliament building in Baku, in December 2021. Azerbaijani police have detained, beaten, threatened, or otherwise obstructed the work of at least six journalists reporting on environmental protests in the western village of Soyudlu since June 22, 2023. (Reuters/Aziz Karimov)

Azerbaijan police detain, beat journalists covering environmental protest

Stockholm, June 30, 2023—Azerbaijan authorities must ensure journalists can cover protests without obstruction and should investigate reports of police violence against members of the press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

Since June 22, Azerbaijani police have detained, beaten, threatened, or otherwise obstructed the work of at least six journalists reporting on environmental protests in the western village of Soyudlu, according to news reports and the six journalists, who spoke to CPJ. None of the journalists remain in detention. 

After protests against a local goldmine erupted on June 20, police blocked access to Soyudlu beginning on June 22, allowing only residents and pro-government media outlets, news reports said.

“Azerbaijani authorities’ attempts to stifle coverage of ongoing environmental protests and the police brutality in enforcing this censorship are abhorrent and must end immediately,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in Amsterdam. “Authorities should allow all journalists to report on newsworthy events and must transparently investigate all allegations of police violence and threats against members of the press.”

On June 22, police at a checkpoint into Soyudlu denied entry to Nargiz Absalamova, a reporter with independent news website Abzas Media; Nigar Mubariz, a freelance reporter with U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Voice of America’s Azeri service; and Elsever Muradzade, a reporter who covers sports and social issues on his Facebook and TikTok accounts where he has about 10,000 total followers, according to those reports and the journalists, who communicated with CPJ by messaging app.

The journalists entered the village by another route and were reporting when two uniformed police officers and seven or eight people in plainclothes detained them and took their phones, the journalists said. 

When Mubariz repeatedly demanded her phone back, one of the men dressed in plain clothes covered her mouth with his hand, and a police officer twisted Absalamova’s arm and pushed her against a wall. Police then forced the journalists into an unmarked car and drove them to a nearby town, where they returned their phones and released them.

Separately on June 22, State Service for Mobilization and Conscription officers summoned Elmaddin Shamilzade, an independent journalist who publishes on Tiktok and Facebook where he has a combined 7,500 followers, after he published a video showing the faces of police officers in Soyudlu the previous day, according to news reports and the journalist, who communicated with CPJ by messaging app.

The officers demanded evidence of his exemption from military service, which Shamilzade is awaiting as he requested the evidence from his university. He said he filed his documentation for four years of study in 2022, leading him to believe the sudden request is retaliation for his reporting, and he fears being drafted.

The following day, police in the Yasamal district of the capital city of Baku detained Shamilzade and demanded that he delete the video. When the journalist refused, three police officers punched him, struck him with a truncheon, pulled his hair, kicked him in the stomach, and threatened to rape him.

Shamilzade said he lost consciousness for around five minutes and, when he awoke, he deleted the video from Facebook. Police then took him to the Baku City Police Department, where a police official threatened to jail him if he spoke publicly about the attack. Shamilzade had bruising and scrapes on his neck, face, and body from the attack, according to photos reviewed by CPJ.

On June 23, police in the Binagadi district of Baku summoned Ulvi Hasanli, chief editor of Abzas Media, after he posted pictures of two police officers who detained Absalamova, Mubariz, and Muradzade on Facebook, according to those reports and Hasanli, who communicated with CPJ by messaging app. Police demanded he delete the post, but he refused and was released after four hours.

That evening, security staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baku removed Hasanli from the premises, and police detained him after he livestreamed three Azerbaijani activists protesting at the embassy over events in Soyudlu, according to news reports, Hasanli, and footage of his arrest posted by the journalist on Facebook. Hasanli told CPJ that police took him to the No. 21 Police Station in the Nasimi district of Baku, ordered him to delete photos and videos of the event from his phone—which he did not have—and released him after an hour.

On June 25, Farid Ismayilov, a reporter with independent outlet Toplum TV, was interviewing residents in the village of Chovdar, which neighbors Soyudlu, when two people in plainclothes who identified themselves as police approached him and tried to take his camera, saying that local officials had forbidden reporting from the village, according to Ismayilov, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app, and a Facebook post by the journalist.

Ismayilov fled in his car but was followed out of the region by two vehicles, he told CPJ, adding that local officials threatened to have his relatives fired from their jobs if he published his video reports.

CPJ’s emails to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan, the Baku City police department, and the Yasamal, Binagadi, and Nasimi district police stations did not receive any replies.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Baku replied to CPJ’s emailed inquiry about Hasanli’s removal from the premises by saying, “Only portions of the official program [of the June 23 event] were open to media and on the record” and “The U.S. Embassy supports fundamental freedoms including the right to protest and freedom of speech.”