Voice of America fails to report on PEN prize for jailed RFE/RL journalist

BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) failed to report online in English, Russian and many other languages that a jailed Azerbaijani journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who works for VOA’s sister news organization, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), will receive, as reported by The New York Times and confirmed by RFE/RL, a prestigious press freedom award next month from the PEN American Center. The New York Times and RFE/RL reported that “the nonprofit literary organization joins a rising wave of international criticism directed at the government of President Ilham Aliyev over human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech (NYT).” VOA Azeri Service did post a short news report online about the PEN award, “Xədicə İsmayıl PEN mükafatına layiq görülüb” | VOA Azeri Service.

UPDATE: Well over 24 hours after The New York Times reported on the PEN American Center 2015 PEN / Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for Khadija Ismayilova, VOA News finally updated its earlier report to include this information and to identify Ms. Ismayilova as Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe reporter in Azerbaijan. The update time stamp on the VOA report is: “Last updated on: April 16, 2015 10:09 PM.”

Close to 24 hours after The New York Times reported this news, VOA English and Russian language websites still had no information about the PEN press freedom award for Radio Liberty’s Khadija Ismayilova. The PEN American Center is an American institution. Founded in 1922 and based in New York City, it “works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship. The Center has a membership of 3,300 writers, editors, and translators.”

It also appears that at least some VOA English newsroom writers and editors do not know who Khadija Ismayilova is or know of her connection to Radio Liberty and to their own oversight media agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG has issued numerous protests over the arrest of the RFE/RL journalist in Azerbaijan, a fact not noted in today’s VOA News report, mentioning her by name but not mentioning her connection to the BBG and Radio Liberty.

Today (April 16, 2015), VOA News reported on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) protest over sentencing in Azerbaijan of a human rights activist, Rasul Jafarov, to six and a half years in a prison colony on business-related charges.

The VOA News report, “OSCE Condemns Imprisonment of Human Rights Activist in Azerbaijan” | VOA News, says that more than 10 journalists, bloggers and social media activists are in prison in Azerbaijan, one of the largest numbers incarcerated by any of the OSCE’s 57 member states. VOA News lists some of them, including Khadija Ismayilova.

VOA NEWS (as of 2:30 PM ET, April 16): “They include Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Azadliq; Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper Azadliq; Omar Mamedov, Abdul Abilov and Rashad Ramazanov, bloggers; Parviz Hashimli, a journalist; and Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the azadxeber.org news website.”

In mentioning these individuals, VOA News was quoting OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović.

But VOA News writers and editors apparently failed to make a connection between Khadija Ismayilova, Radio Liberty, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. In addition to staff VOA Newsroom writers and editors, VOA also employs many poorly paid contractors.

Instead of naming Khadija Ismayilova as a journalist for Radio Liberty, OSCE used the local name of Radio Liberty in Azerbaijan, “Radio Azadliq.” While “Radio Azadliq” name is known to some people in the region, it is not familiar to the vast majority of English speakers, and apparently also not known to VOA News writers and editors responsible for this VOA News report.

VOA News Report Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 2.59 PM ET
VOA News Report Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 2:59 PM ET

The VOA News report thus failed to mention that Khadija Ismayilova is ultimately employed by the same U.S. agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, that also oversees the Voice of America and employs VOA staffers and contractors. Not knowing for whom Khadija Ismayilova has been working, VOA News writers and editors failed to mention a recent statement from BBG Chairman Jeff Shell condemning her extended detention by the Azerbaijani authorities.

BBG CHAIR JEFF SHELL: “We are concerned about Khadija’s well-being, and outraged by the Azerbaijani government’s flagrant assaults on press freedom,” said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. “Not only is Khadija unjustly imprisoned on a fabricated accusation, but our news bureau in Baku remains sealed by Azerbaijani authorities. We demand that the authorities permit the bureau to reopen, release Khadija Ismayilova, and halt the harassment of RFE/RL journalists and their families.”

VOA News also did not mention even in one sentence that on December 26, 2014 RFE/RL’s Baku bureau was raided and closed by government agents.

Failing to make a connection between Khadija Ismayilova and Radio Liberty, the BBG, and indirectly with VOA as working for the same U.S. media agency, VOA News also failed to link her with a prestigious PEN press freedom award.

Our search has shown that the VOA Russian news website also had nothing on the PEN prize for jailed Radio Liberty reporter Khadija Ismayilova.

VOA Russian Search Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3.03 PM ET
VOA Russian Search Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3:03 PM ET

This is yet another proof how badly the Voice of America and VOA News are being managed. It also shows that senior VOA executives, managers and editors do not read news reports on the VOA website.

On April 7, Voice of America Director David Ensor announced his resignation after nearly four years leading, what the BBG press release described as “the nation’s international state broadcaster,” but he is still expected to stay with the organization for a few more weeks.

At yesterday’s (April 15) congressional hearing, entitled “Confronting Russia’s Weaponization of Information,” U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee,said that “this isn’t a matter of resources. U.S.-broadcasters are laboring under a flawed bureaucracy.”

REP. ED ROYCE, CHAIRMAN OF THE HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: “This isn’t a matter of resources. U.S.-broadcasters are laboring under a flawed bureaucracy. Members may recall that then-Secretary Clinton called the agency “defunct” in her testimony before this Committee in 2013. The Inspector General and Government Accountability Office have been highly critical. Defenders have argued that all the BBG really needed to improve was a new CEO. Well, they hired a CEO and he quit after 42 days on the job. Last week, the director of the VOA announced his resignation. Our international broadcasting is in disarray.”

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Jailed Azerbaijani Journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, to Be Honored by PEN

New York Times – ‎21 hours ago‎
MOSCOW — A jailed Azerbaijani journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, will receive a prestigious press freedom award next month from the PEN American Center, as the nonprofit literary organization joins a rising wave of international criticism directed at the …

PEN to Give Press Freedom Award to Jailed Journalist Khadija Ismayilova

Hetq Online – ‎3 hours ago‎
The investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed in Azerbaijan in December, will be awarded the PEN American Center’s prestigious Freedom to Write Award. The accolade, created in 1987, is given annually to writers who have been …

Khadija Ismayilova to Receive PEN America Freedom To Write Award–2015

Authorlink – ‎2 hours ago‎
PEN American Center announced today that it will honor jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova with the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at the annual PEN Literary Gala on May 5, 2015, at the American Museum of Natural …

Baku Sentences Rights Activist; PEN To Honor Jailed Journalist

RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty – ‎4 hours ago‎
In an April 15 statement, PEN said: “Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning reporter whose hard-hitting investigations have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, including the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev.” Ismayilova was …

PEN To Honor Jailed Azerbaijani Journalist Ismayilova

RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty – ‎11 hours ago‎
Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning reporter whose hard-hitting investigations have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, including the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev,” PEN said in a statement on April 15. Ismayilova was …

Voice of America News (April 16, 3PM ET)

 

OSCE Condemns Imprisonment of Human Rights Activist in Azerbaijan

April 16, 2015 12:33 PM

VOA News

Azerbaijan sentenced a human rights activist Thursday to six and a half years in a prison colony on business-related charges.

A court in the capital Baku found Rasul Jafarov guilty on charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power and forgery committed by a civil servant. Jafarov had denied all the allegations. His lawyer denounced the verdict as illegal and politically motivated, and said they will appeal it.

Jafarov, 30, helped organize various rights campaigns, including “Sing For Democracy” in 2013, when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest to draw international attention to the country’s poor human rights record. He was arrested last August.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called Jafarov’s sentencing a blatant violation of human rights and freedom of expression.

“Jafarov’s sentencing is nothing short of an act of injustice and it adds to the growing number of journalists and free expression advocates serving time in Azerbaijani prisons for their work,” OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said in a statement.

“This systematic and wide-scale persecution of independent voices in Azerbaijan is a clear violation of the fundamental and basic human right of freedom of expression,” wrote Mijatović.

Mijatović noted that more than 10 journalists, bloggers and social media activists are in prison in Azerbaijan, one of the largest numbers incarcerated by any of the OSCE’s 57 member states.

They include Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Azadliq; Seymur Hazi, a columnist for the newspaper Azadliq; Omar Mamedov, Abdul Abilov and Rashad Ramazanov, bloggers; Parviz Hashimli, a journalist; and Nijat Aliyev, editor-in-chief of the azadxeber.org news website.

The chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Emin Huseynov, was forced into hiding while also facing charges of tax evasion, illegal business dealings and abuse of power.

Rights groups accuse the government of stepping up a campaign to silence opposition since President Ilham Aliyevwas elected to a third term in 2013.

Aliyev, 53, became Azerbaijan’s president in 2003 following an election that international observers said was flawed.

He took power after the death of his father, Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled newly independent Azerbaijan since 1993.

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RFE/RL News

 

Baku Sentences Rights Activist; PEN To Honor Jailed Journalist

By RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 16.04.2015 09:20

BAKU — A prominent human rights activist in Azerbaijan has been sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.

The Baku Court for Grave Crimes found Rasul Cafarov guilty of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office on April 16.

After his sentence was pronounced, Cafarov said the verdict was politically motivated.

Cafarov’s lawyer, Fariz Namazly, said after the ruling: “We will appeal the illegal and politically motivated verdict.

Cafarov was arrested in August after he announced plans for a campaign to draw attention to human rights abuses by authorities in Azerbaijan ahead of the European Games, which the oil-producing Caspian Sea nation is hosting in June.

The 30-year-old Cafarov previously helped organize several rights campaigns — including one called Sing For Democracy, which used Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest to draw international attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.

The chair of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, Isabel Santos has condemned Cafarov’s sentencing and called on the international community to recognize him as a prisoner of conscience.

Amnesty International has recognized Cafarov as a prisoner of conscience.

Earlier in April, the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Human Right Watch said President Ilham Aliyev’s government has used a range of bogus criminal charges during the previous year to arrest or imprison at least 35 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers.

Meanwhile, a New York-based group that works to defend freedom of expression has announced that a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL, Khadija Ismayilova, will be honored on May 5 with a prestigious media freedom award.

The PEN American Center, part of a worldwide association of writers that defends those who are harassed, imprisoned, and killed for their views, said Ismayilova has been chosen to receive the 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

In an April 15 statement, PEN said: “Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning reporter whose hard-hitting investigations have revealed corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan, including the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev.”

Ismayilova was arrested on December 5 on charges of inciting a man to attempt suicide.

PEN said the charges were “trumped-up” and followed “years of escalating harassment by government and pro-government forces.”

The plaintiff in the initial case against Ismayilova, Tural Mustafayev, told RFE/RL on April 7 that he had formally asked the Prosecutor-General’s Office to withdraw his complaint against her.

Mustafayev said he was under emotional stress when he lodged his accusation last year and now wants to “make peace” with Ismayilova.

But new charges were filed against Ismayilova in February alleging tax evasion, illegal business activities, and abuse of power.

Ismayilova denies wrongdoing and says all the charges against her are politically motivated.

Her jailing has been widely condemned by international rights groups as part of a campaign by Aliyev’s government to intimidate and silence independent activists and journalists.

On December 4, a day before Ismayilova’s arrest, Aliyev’s chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, publicly accused her of treason.

Later in December, the RFE/RL bureau in Baku was ransacked and ordered closed by investigators, while dozens of RFE/RL reporters were summoned by police for questioning related to their employment.

In March, when a Baku court held an unannounced snap hearing that prolonged Ismayilova’s pretrial detention until May 24, the prosecutors linked the additional charges brought against her to allegations that RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service had been operating in the country as an illegal entity since 2008.

RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said then, “The case against RFE/RL, and by extension the case against Khadija, has no basis in reality — the Azeris are making these things up as they go. We have memoranda from state agencies recognizing our broadcasting rights, tax documents, and years of approved Azeri state audits — everything required. All of these charges should be dropped and Khadija should be released immediately.”

The United States said last month that releasing jailed Azerbaijanis including Ismayilova, rights activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev and others would demonstrate adherence to Azerbaijan’s “commitments to uphold the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens.”

With additional reporting by AFP and The New York Times

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