On March 8, Toplum TV’s founder Alasgar Mammadli was arrested as he left a health clinic. (Screenshot: Turan Informasiya Agentliyi/YouTube)
On March 8, 2024, Toplum TV’s founder Alasgar Mammadli was arrested as he left a health clinic in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, by plainclothes police officers who took him away in an unmarked vehicle. (Screenshot: Turan Informasiya Agentliyi/YouTube)

Azerbaijani police raid Toplum TV, detain journalists over alleged currency smuggling

Stockholm, March 11, 2024—Azerbaijani authorities should release Toplum TV’s founder Alasgar Mammadli and journalist Mushfig Jabbar, drop all charges against the independent news outlet’s staff, and allow the media to work freely and without reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

On March 6, dozens of plainclothes police officers in the capital, Baku, raided Toplum TV’s editorial office at around 1:30 pm, confiscated its equipment and the phones of all staff who were present, and took at least 10 of them to Baku City Police Department for questioning, according to news reports and Toplum TV’s chief editor, Khadija Ismayilova, who spoke to CPJ by phone.

All of the journalists were freed at around midnight except for video editor Jabbar, reporter Farid Ismayilov, and social media manager Elmir Abbasov, according to Ismayilova, a multiple award-winning investigative journalist, who was jailed from 2014 to 2016 in retaliation for her work.

The police claim to have found 3,200 euros (US$3,500) in Jabbar’s apartment, 3,100 euros (US$3,390) in Ismayilov’s apartment, and 2,700 euros (US$2,950) in Abbasov’s home, according to the regional news website Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot).

On March 8, the Khatai District Court in Baku ordered Jabbar to be detained for four months pending investigation on currency smuggling charges, while Ismayilov and Abbasov were released on bail.

Also on March 8, plainclothes police arrested Toplum TV’s founder Mammadli and took him away in an unmarked vehicle as he left a clinic where he was receiving treatment for suspected cancerous tumours, according to multiple media reports and footage of the arrest.

On March 9, the Khatai District Court ordered Mammadli — who is also the founder of Media Rights Group, a local press freedom NGO — to be detained for four months pending investigation on currency smuggling charges, after police said they found 7,300 euros (US$7,970) in cash in his apartment, those sources said.

The journalists have denied the charges, which are punishable by up to eight years in prison under Article 206.3.2 of Azerbaijan’s criminal code, and said that the police planted the money in their homes.

“Following similar attacks on Abzas Media and Kanal 13, the raid on Toplum TV and arrest of its journalists indicate that Azerbaijani authorities are intent on eradicating the last vestiges of the country’s independent press. Reports that police detained the outlet’s founder Alasgar Mammadli while he was receiving treatment for suspected cancer are particularly outrageous,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator in New York. “Authorities in Azerbaijan should immediately release Mammadli and Jabbar, drop all charges against Toplum TV staff, and stop retaliating against independent media for their reporting.”

Third media outlet to face smuggling charges

Toplum TV is one of the last significant independent media outlets in the country, reporting on politics, investigations into official corruption, and allegations of voting irregularities during February’s presidential elections, in which President Ilham Aliyev won a fifth term.

It is the third independent news outlet in Azerbaijan to face currency smuggling charges in recent months, as relations decline between Azerbaijan and the West. Since November, six members of anticorruption investigative outlet Abzas Media and two journalists with independent broadcaster Kanal 13 have been detained after authorities accused them of illegally bringing Western donor money into Azerbaijan 

Azerbaijani authorities have not publicly accused Toplum TV of illicit Western funding but the state-affiliated Azerbaijani Press Agency reported that Toplum TV illegally received half a million dollars from Western donors to foment unrest.

Since the initial arrests of Abzas Media staff in November, pro-government media that Ismayilova has said are acting on instructions from Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly claimed Toplum TV and Ismayilova represent another Western-funded “network of subversion” and were misleading young journalists into anti-state activity ahead of the February elections. 

Shortly after the police raid, Toplum TV’s Instagram account was deleted and its YouTube channel was renamed and all of its content deleted, Ismayilova said, adding that this “shows authorities’ real intention,” which is to “silence any platform where criticism is expressed.” 

Toplum TV’s office remains sealed by police, who have yet to return any of the outlet’s confiscated equipment or journalists’ phones, she said, describing the charges against Toplum staff as “absolutely absurd.” None of the searches of journalists’ homes were conducted with lawyers present as police denied entry to some, Ismayilova told CPJ.

CPJ’s email requesting comment on the case from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan, which responds on behalf of the police, did not immediately receive a reply.