Stockholm, January 8, 2024—Azerbaijani authorities should release journalists Aziz Orujov and Shamo Eminov, overturn a block on their outlet Kanal 13, and stop retaliating against critical independent media, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
On December 22, police in the capital, Baku, detained Eminov, a freelance reporter who contributes to the popular YouTube-based broadcaster Kanal 13, as he was on his way to conduct an interview, according to media reports and the outlet’s chief editor Anar Orujov, who spoke to CPJ in a telephone interview.
The following day, the Sabail District Court in Baku ordered Eminov to be held in pretrial detention for three months and five days on charges of conspiring to bring money into the country illegally, those reports said.
On December 19, police also brought currency smuggling charges against Kanal 13 Director Aziz Orujov, who was already being held in pretrial detention since being charged on November 27 with illegal construction, which his lawyers rejected as retaliatory, according to the independent news website Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) and Kanal 13’s Anar Orujov, who is also Aziz’s brother.
If convicted, the journalists could face up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code.
Prosecutors accused Orujov, Eminov, and other “unknown” individuals of bringing 90,000 manat (US$52,940) in cash from foreign donor organizations into Azerbaijan through “numerous transactions” during 2022 and 2023, according to court documents reviewed by CPJ. The journalists denied the charges, Anar Orujov told CPJ, saying they were “the latest step in authorities’ attempts to silence Kanal 13’s critical reporting.”
On December 11, the court ordered Kanal 13 to be blocked in Azerbaijan, according to news reports and a copy of the court decision, which CPJ reviewed, on the grounds that the outlet spread “false,” “insulting,” “defamatory,” and “discrediting” information about state officials and others.
“Amid Azerbaijan’s ongoing wave of journalist detentions, the latest arrests and charges against Kanal 13 journalists and the blocking of the channel only underline how keen authorities are to stifle critical voices ahead of February’s presidential elections,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Azerbaijani authorities should release Kanal 13’s Aziz Orujov and Shamo Eminov, and all other unjustly jailed journalists, allow Kanal 13 to broadcast, reform laws banning foreign funding of the media, and end their repression of the independent press.”
Kanal 13 has broadcast mainly on YouTube since authorities unofficially blocked its website in 2017, Anar Orujov said, adding that, as of January 8, the outlet’s YouTube channels were still accessible in Azerbaijan.
Orujov and Eminov are among seven journalists and media workers being held in pretrial detention on allegations of smuggling money into the country from foreign donor organizations since November 20, including five members of the anti-corruption investigative outlet Abzas Media.
Emin Huseynov, director of independent media freedom group Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, told CPJ that Azerbaijani authorities have increasingly restricted legal avenues for media outlets to receive foreign funding since 2013, amid a wave of prosecutions of independent media and rights groups.
Anar Orujov told CPJ that Kanal 13’s only source of revenue was YouTube earnings, describing the allegations as “fabricated.”
Eminov’s wife, Durdana Eminova, told local and regional media that police called her on the evening of his arrest on December 22, told her that he had been detained, and asked her to bring one of his diplomas to the station. When she went home to collect the diploma, the house appeared to have been searched, and the journalist’s laptop was missing, she said.
Authorities froze the bank accounts of Aziz Orujov, Eminov, and three other journalists at Kanal 13, and also blocked the accounts of Orujov’s wife and the pension card of his mother, Anar Orujov said.
Kanal 13 regularly covers sensitive topics such as demonstrations and human rights violations and gives space to opposition views on its YouTube channels, where it has a combined 2 million subscribers. On December 2, authorities sentenced Kanal 13 presenter Rufat Muradli to 30 days’ detention on hooliganism charges denounced by the outlet as “absolutely not credible,” releasing him on January 1.
In 2017, authorities sentenced Aziz Orujov to six years in prison on charges of illegal entrepreneurship and abuse of power, which was widely viewed as retaliation for his journalism, and released him on probation in 2018.
On January 23, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Fazil Guliyev, responded by email to CPJ’s inquiries about charges against Eminov and Orujov, calling claims that authorities are criminally prosecuting the journalists for exercising freedom of expression and opinion “completely groundless.” Guliyev said that “all individuals are held responsible only in relation to the specific illegal acts they have committed.”
Editor’s notes: The text has been amended in the fourth paragraph to clarify which body brought new charges to Aziz Orujov. A response from Azerbaijan’s deputy minister of internal affairs was added on January 23.