Journalist Imran Aliyev reports on his April 18 arrest at Azerbaijan's Baku International Airport. Aliyev is the thirteenth Azerbaijani journalist since November to be arrested on currency smuggling charges. (Screenshot: CPJ/Abzas Media via Facebook)

Azerbaijan arrests 13th journalist over alleged international donor funding

Stockholm, April 22, 2024—Azerbaijani authorities should release journalist Imran Aliyev and stop arresting journalists on allegations of illegally receiving funding from international donors, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

On April 18, officers from the State Border Service, a law enforcement agency,  detained Aliyev, founder and chief executive of the independent news outlet, at the capital’s Baku International Airport, according to news reports. The following day, Baku’s Khatai District Court ordered that Aliyev be held in pretrial detention for two months on charges of smuggling currency, those sources said.

Aliyev is the thirteenth Azerbaijani journalist to be arrested on currency smuggling charges related to the receipt of Western donor funding since November, amid worsening relations with the West. President Ilham Aliyev (not related to the journalist), who took over from his father in 2003, won a fifth consecutive term in February.

News reports quoted unnamed relatives of Imran Aliyev as saying that police beat and electrocuted the journalist during detention and that he had bruises under his eyes and unspecified injuries on his body. A person familiar with the case, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal, said police forced Aliyev to sign a document and to waive his right to a lawyer.

“It is the epitome of cynicism for Azerbaijani authorities to make mass arrests of journalists on allegations of illegally receiving money from respected international donors when those authorities have spent two decades making it virtually impossible for independent, critical outlets to secure funding, either at home or abroad,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Azerbaijan’s international partners must show greater resolve in pushing Azerbaijan to improve its dismal press freedom record before it hosts the COP29 climate conference in November. Allegations that journalist Imran Aliyev was assaulted after his arrest must be fully investigated and all unjustly jailed journalists should be released.”

Ten other journalists are currently in detention on similar charges — six from the investigative Abzas Media, two from the online broadcaster Kanal 13, and two from Toplum TV. Two more Toplum TV staff have been released pending trial.

‘Anti-national’ media network

On April 18, the pro-government news website published an article which said that Aliyev had been identified as a “new name” in authorities’ investigations into a Western-controlled “network” of media outlets and NGOs, including Abzas Media and Toplum TV, that had been paid to carry out “anti-national goals.”

Hours later, Abzas Media published a video of Aliyev at Baku airport, in which he said that he tried to leave Azerbaijan for his “safety” after reading the article but he had been detained. Aliyev rejected the allegations against him as “fabricated” and said that the article had been “ordered” by authorities.

Aliyev chose his own lawyer for the April 19 court hearing, but they were only allowed to meet once, the person familiar with the case told CPJ. ( reports on Azerbaijan’s parliament and often publicizes lawmakers’ mistakes.

The government has put pressure on advertisers to squeeze out domestic funding of the media, while restrictive legislation largely bans foreign funding.

This leaves a narrow window for Western donors to support independent journalism in Azerbaijan, exiled press freedom advocate Emin Huseynov told CPJ. First, nonprofits must be registered and then they need official approval to provide grants to independent media outlets — which is routinely denied, he said.

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