BBG Watch Commentary

Khadija Ismayilova, in the studio at RFE/RL’s bureau in Baku. RFE/RL Photo.
Khadija Ismayilova, in the studio at RFE/RL’s bureau in Baku. RFE/RL Photo.

In a latest clampdown on free media, a court in Azerbaijan has ordered a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova held in pre-trial detention for two months, the New York Times‘ David Herszenhorn reported from Baku.

READ: Azerbaijan Jails Reporter Who Angered Top Officials, David Herszenhorn, New York Times, Dec. 5, 2014

“Khadija’s arrest is just another attempt by the Azeri government to silence its critics and restrict press freedom in Azerbaijan,” said Jeff Shell, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). “We are outraged at her treatment, and we call on the government of Azerbaijan to release her immediately.” BBG, which oversees RFE/RL, Voice of America (VOA) and other taxpayer-funded U.S. international media outlets, has issued several press releases and statements on the harassment of Khadija Ismayilova by authorities in Azerbaijan.

In a notable development, mismanaged and understaffed VOA English news service for the first time posted a short English-language report online on Khadija Ismayilova’s case. RFE/RL and BBG have been reporting and issuing statements on harassment and persecution of Khadija Ismayilova by the authorities in Azerbaijan since at least 2012. Voice of America English news website has had nothing on the Ismayilova story until now even when members of the U.S. Congress condemned violations of media freedom in Azerbaijan.

Last month, Voice of America English news website and the vast majority of other VOA foreign language news websites, including VOA Russian Service, ignored a statement from U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) who in remarks made on Capitol Hill had urged Azerbaijan to respect the work of independent journalists. VOA English news service had also ignored all earlier numerous BBG statements on Ismayilova. But the Ismayilova story has been covered extensively by VOA Azerbaijani Service which had interviewed Senator Cardin last month. This time, VOA Russian Service also posted online a report on Ismayilova’s arrest Friday.

VOA English news service reported this time, as did the New York Times, that State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. was deeply troubled by what she said were restrictions on civil society in Azerbaijan. She said U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned the Azeri government is not living up to its international commitments.

But in a major embarrassment for the Voice of America, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the United States, in a case unrelated to RFE/RL which will make defense of competent journalists facing persecution such as Ismayilova more difficult, Voice of America director David Ensor had to apologize recently to the government of Azerbaijan for a Voice of America video report about the country which proved to be false and violated the VOA Charter and journalistic standards. Despite accusations from the government in Baku, hard-hitting RFE/RL reporting from Azerbaijan is considered accurate by outside observers and has received numerous international journalistic awards.

Senator Cardin, who is co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, presided last month at a hearing on “Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region,” at which an empty chair was left at the witness table to mark the absence of Khadija Ismayilova who was denied the opportunity to testify because of a travel ban imposed by Azeri authorities.

Poor management by senior Voice of America executives has been a major obstacle to adequate VOA coverage of Congress, White House, State Department, and human rights issues both abroad and in the United States. See: House vote, Royce, Engel on Russia too trivial for Voice of America, but not tighty whities, BBG Watch, Dec. 6, 2014. In July 2014, the House of Representatives passed the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), bipartisan legislation authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). The bill is now awaiting further legislative action by the U.S. Senate.

The New York Times article does not quote from the BBG press release on Khadija Ismayilova, but includes a statement from RFE/RL’s editor in chief Nenad Pejic condemning her arrest.

RFE/RL’s NENAD PEJIC: “The arrest and detention of Khadija Ismayilova is the latest attempt in a two-year campaign to silence a journalist who has investigated government corruption and human rights abuses in Azerbaijan,” Mr. Pejic said. “The charges brought against her today are outrageous. Khadija is being punished for her journalism.”

RFE/RL Chief Editor Nenad Pejic ridiculed the charges, which come one day after Ramiz Mehdiyev, Chief of Staff to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, issued a 60-page statement accusing Ismayilova of “defiance” and displaying a “destructive attitude toward well-known members of the Azerbaijani community,” which “pleases [her] patrons abroad.” The statement adds that RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service is on a “disgusting path,” and its employees work “for a foreign secret service.”

Khadija was named one of the Brave Thinkers of the world by the Atlantic magazine. In 2012, she received the Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe Award and the Courage of journalism Award by U.S.-based International Women’s Media Foundation. She is also the recipient of Global Shining Award for her work in exposing “questionable business dealings” involving the ruling family.

Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter with RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, was taken from a Baku courthouse to a pretrial detention center on December 5 as supporters gathered outside the court, chanting her name. Ismayilova told journalists that her detention is illegal (RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service)

The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, condemned Ismayilova’s arrest, saying, “The arrest of Ismailova is nothing but orchestrated intimidation, which is a part of the ongoing campaign aimed at silencing her free and critical voice.”


Arrest of journalist latest case of crackdown of free media in Azerbaijan, says OSCE Representative


Azerbaijan Jails Khadija Ismayilova


BBG Board Denounces Arrest Of Khadija Ismayilova


Azerbaijan Bars Journalist From Testifying On Corruption, BBG, Nov. 20, 2014

Amid Declining Media Freedom, RFE/RL Presses Ahead, BBG, May 2, 2014

BBG Reviews Its Operations In The Middle East, BBG, Feb. 25, 2014

Azerbaijani Prosecutors Pursue “Absurd” Allegations Against Ismayilova, BBG, Feb. 20, 2014

Azerbaijan’s “Spy Network” Charge Escalates Pressure On RFE/RL Journalists, BBG, Feb. 19, 2014

BBG Journalists Honored For Bravery, Excellence And Innovation, BBG, Dec. 30, 2013

RFE/RL Azeri Journalists Win Global Investigative Reporting Award, BBG, Oct. 18, 2013

Azerbaijani Press Launches New Attacks On Khadija Ismayilova, BBG, Aug. 30, 2013

With Three New Members, Board Affirms Dedication To BBG’s Mission And Strong Support For Journalists, BBG, Aug. 21, 2013

Threats Escalate Against RFE/RL’s Azeri Reporter Ismayilova, BBG, Aug. 2, 2013

RFE/RL Reports Threats Against Azerbaijan Journalists Ismayilova And Hasanov, BBG, Apr. 26, 2013

BBG Journalists Worldwide Honored In 2012 For Skill, Talent And Courage, BBG, Dec. 27, 2012

IWMF Honors Khadija Ismayilova With “Courage In Journalism” Award, BBG, Oct. 26, 2012

Update On International Broadcasting: A Spotlight On Threats To Press Freedom, BBG, May 4, 2012

RFE’s Khadija Ismayilova Honored By International Women’s Media Foundation, BBG, May 4, 2012

RFE/RL’s World Press Freedom Day Video, BBG, May 3, 2014

RFE/RL Correspondent In Azerbaijan Targeted In Blackmail Campaign, BBG, Mar. 7, 2012