Azerbaijani singer Faig Agayev, left, and wrestler Farid Mansurov take part in the Baku Games torch relay on June 9. Azerbaijan has cracked down on the press in the lead up to hosting the first European Games. (AFP/Tofik Babayev)

Baku 2015: Press freedom, Azerbaijan, and the European Games

By Nina Ognianova / Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator on June 11, 2015 12:01 AM ET

Tomorrow 50 countries are due to take part in the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games in Baku, but Azerbaijan's most prominent journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, will not be at the celebrations. The award-winning investigative reporter has been in jail since December on retaliatory charges over her writing on corruption.

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The country's leading media freedom advocate, Emin Huseynov, will also miss out on the spectacle of what is being hailed as the mini-Olympics. Fearing arrest under Azerbaijan's crackdown on journalists and human rights groups, the director of Baku-based media freedom group Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety moved into the Swiss embassy for protection in August.

Ismayilova and Huseynov are emblematic of the risks faced by prominent journalists and rights advocates in Azerbaijan--the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, according to CPJ's annual prison census. Nearly all of the journalists currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan are facing retaliatory charges after reporting on government corruption.

With about 1,300 international journalists due to cover the Games in Baku from June 12 to 28, the press has a unique opportunity to scrutinize this censored and restricted country.

Azerbaijan's press freedom record

  • Eight independent journalists are in prison on retaliatory charges over their critical reporting.
  • The country is the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, according to CPJ's annual prison census.
  • Azerbaijan is the fifth most censored country in the world, ahead of Iran and China, according to CPJ research.
  • Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative journalist and program host on Radio Azadlyg, the Azeri service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been in pre-trial detention since December 2014, on retaliatory charges including illegal business, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Ismayilova reports on allegations of high-level corruption in Azerbaijan, including in the presidential family. Prior to her arrest, she was threatened, blackmailed, and smeared in the pro-government Azerbaijani media. Ismayilova is profiled in CPJ's Press Uncuffed: Free the Press campaign.
  • The Baku bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was raided and closed down in December on unspecified charges following Ismayilova's arrest.
  • Fearing arrest, Emin Huseynov, director of the Baku-based media freedom group Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, moved into the Swiss embassy in Baku in August for protection.
  • Dozens of independent journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, including award-winning reporter Idrak Abbasov, have been forced into exile after suffering harassment, threats, and physical attacks related to their work.

Responsibilities of European Games host country

  • Organizers of the Games are obligated, under the Olympic Charter's "Media Coverage of the Olympic Games," to ensure "the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience." However, Hikmat Hajiyev, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, told state news agency Azertac in April that press accreditation for the Games can be canceled for anything deemed to be against the "territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan."
  • The 1,300 international journalists due to cover the Games in Baku should be free, under the Olympic Charter, to report on the social, political, economic, and environmental context in which the Games are set, including conditions for human rights and press freedom.
  • Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović, and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst have called on athletes taking part in the Games to take a stand against repressive conditions in Azerbaijan.

International reaction to Baku 2015

  • The Sports for Rights campaign, a coalition of international organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, was formed in the lead up to the European Games to raise awareness about Azerbaijan's crackdown on civil society.
  • High-level German officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, will not attend the opening ceremony. An official statement has not been given but, according to reports, Merkel has previously raised concerns about human rights in Azerbaijan.
  • The German Olympic Sports Confederation has joined an international call for Azerbaijan to release political prisoners before the Games begin on June 12.
  • The government's promotional #HelloBaku hashtag campaign has been countered by human rights defenders with #realBaku2015.

Take action

Share the following tweets between June 12 and June 28, or write your own:

[email protected], release journalist #KhadijaIsmayilova, jailed in retaliation for her coverage. cc: @AzerbaijanPA

Please @JohnKerry ask @presidentaz of Azerbaijan to release journalist #KhadijaIsmayilova. #RealBaku2015

#EuropeanGames host Azerbaijan is one of Europe's most repressive & closed countries. #RealBaku2015 #Baku2015

Azerbaijan is the leading jailer of press in Europe & Central Asia. It's also hosting #EuropeanGames. #RealBaku2015

CPJ calls on @EOCmedia to engage with #EuropeanGames host Azerbaijan on press freedom. #RealBaku2015 cc @EOCEUOffice

Azerbaijan is the 5th most censored country in the world, worse than Iran or China. #Baku2015 #RealBaku2015

Stay updated on press freedom and human rights issues during the Games on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #realBaku2015. Support CPJ's PressUncuffed campaign to free imprisoned journalists, including Khadija Ismayilova. For more details on press freedom in Azerbaijan, visit CPJ's website or follow @pressfreedom @CPJEurasia and @Kremlinologist1 on Twitter.


Why is it that where there is corruption, abuse of human rights and imprisonment of journalists is where the Olympic movement use thise countries for their games. China, Russia and Baku are good examples? Clearly a lot of money will be injected into the hosts economy, the corrupt rich will get richer, and the poor will get nothing. Shame on the IOC. Overfed delegates from competing countries will be wined, dined and entertained for the duration of the game, all in five star hotels. Shame on Patrick Hickey for allowing such a country host these games.

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