Under the rule of president Ilham Aliyev, the Republic of Azerbaijan remains one of the most dangerous post-Soviet states for journalists. The South Caucasus state now ranks 162 out of the 180 countries surveyed in the 2015 World Press Freedom index. Independent estimates speak of up to 93 political prisoners—including human rights activists, journalists, members of the extra-parliamentary opposition and, in a chilling new turn, relatives of Aliyev’s exiled opponents.
The Azerbaijani government’s lavish expenses on the 2015 European Games came against a backdrop of decreasing oil prices, and therefore economic fortunes for the Caspian petro-state. Accordingly, Baku has floated the Manat, leading the US dollar to soar in value by 48 per cent against the Azerbaijani currency. Budgets for 2016 are looking increasingly untenable across several states in the region—from Kazakhstan to Russia—leading many to wonder whether Eurasia’s authoritarian governments can continue to pay for social stability and political quiescence with rising living standards.
With Azerbaijan in the spotlight in 2015, attention has naturally fallen on the Aliyev government’s continuing crackdown on civil society. Among other measures, president Aliyev has greatly widened the scope of administrative offences in recent years, making investigative journalism an even costlier business both financially and personally. Many continue to pay the price. Last September saw the sentencing of veteran investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, as well as the release of Arif and Leyla Yunus from prison. Both Arif and Leyla remain under house arrest amid fears for their medical condition. Prominent newspaper correspondent Rauf Mirkadirov was sentenced to six years imprisonment on 28 December, accused of spying for neighbouring Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan remains locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet oases of independent journalism remain in Azerbaijan, even though editors and journalists themselves must operate outside the country. By far the largest addition to Azerbaijan’s independent media scene is MeydanTV, a crowd-funded media platform launched in spring 2013. Producing content in Azeri, English and Russian, MeydanTV has resonated with internet users in Azerbaijan, and its videos saw 4.8 million views on YouTube and 3.7 million views on Facebook in November and December 2015 alone. During the same period, Meydan TV's weekly Facebook outreach was between one and two million, striking in a country with only two million Facebook users out of a total population of nine million.
We spoke to MeydanTV director Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani journalist who was imprisoned in 2009 for two and a half years for his opposition to the Aliyev regime. Milli, now based in Germany, discussed the origins of Meydan TV, Azerbaijani politics and perspectives for civil society in the face of government repression.
How did MeydanTV come to be, and the condition of independent and opposition media in Azerbaijan at the time? Let's start with the brand—an obvious question given associations with the 'M' word (Maidan). What's the story behind the name and logo?
Independent and opposition media have been under continuous attack for the last 20 years. The historic lack of investment in quality journalism in Azerbaijan has been destructive in terms of both market supply and demand. By taking control of broadcast and print media, and an increasing number of online platforms, the authorities have dramatically curtailed the public’s expectations of what Azeri language journalism can and should be.
The arrest of me and my friend Adnan Hajizade in 2009 was a turning point for many young and ambitious people representing the middle class in Azerbaijan. Officially, we were arrested as hooligans, but in fact we have been beaten up, punished for mobilising the new generation—the middle class—for change and giving them hope that change can happen. Our arrest scared the middle class even more.
There are only few representatives of the middle class who openly stand against the repression in Azerbaijan. In 2010 and 2013 the political situation has worsened, and in 2014 the government jailed all the leading remaining leaders of civil society and forced some into exile.
Emin Milli after being released from prison in November 2010. (c) RFE/RL / Demotix.I never saw myself as a journalist or an editor, or someone with a role in the media industry. I could never have imagined myself as the founder and director of a successful online media start-up, enabling Azerbaijani journalists to reach international audiences with their stories. But when I was released from jail, as more and more people—my friends and my peers—were silenced for their work, I felt compelled to make this shift into media. For me, there are no prospects for societal progress without a free press.
As to Meydan, it means ‘square’ in Azerbaijani, the place where people come together. It’s a public space for debate and discussion
As to Meydan, it means ‘square’ in Azerbaijani, the place where people come together. It’s a public space for debate and discussion. We chose the name about a year before the EuroMaidan protests started, and honestly, I think that connotation does not even occur to most of us any more.
For us it’s about having a space for the exchange of ideas and information. It is not revolutionary. The logo is a collection of four ‘M’ letters, representing the convergence of different public spaces and the bringing together of ideas and opinions.
To what extent are Azerbaijani citizens able to access MeydanTV? Your channel has only once been broadcast by satellite and attempts to reach its audience primarily by internet. What are the advantages and limitations of this approach?
We were jammed a week after our launch in May 2013, following which we simply decided to continue as an online media platform, and it is through our web presence, especially social media, that we have been able to expand our operations in the midst of the worst crackdown against media and civil society in our history. We are an increasingly global network, working from at least six different countries to produce reliable, independent journalism in three languages. Our model makes it possible to work quickly, effectively, and cheaply.
The Internet is what enables us to reach our Azerbaijani, Russian, and English-speaking audiences with relative ease—anyone with an internet connection can access Meydan TV.
In September, two MeydanTV contributors Shirin Abbasov and Aytaj Akhmedova were detained, and three MeydanTV journalists were questioned on their return to Baku following their reporting on protests in Mingechevir. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned these detentions. Journalists contributing to MeydanTV operate in an extremely hostile environment. What future for independent journalism in Azerbaijan?
Yes, the environment is hostile, and increasingly so. For the few remaining independent journalists in Azerbaijan, and their families, the stakes are higher than ever. In response to the challenges on the ground, we have been exploring new formats for citizen journalism, and the rapid uptake of these formats is very encouraging. Some of our most-viewed videos in the past two months were submitted by members of the public via Whatsapp.
In terms of the immediate future, the major factor is Internet access; the government's unwillingness to shut down the internet necessarily leaves a place open for independent journalism, especially as people become more savvy about censorship circumvention methods.
From a longer perspective, there is, to my mind, a bright future for independent journalism in Azerbaijan. Even in these darkest of days people are prepared to make huge sacrifices for press freedom. It is during these repressions that we have been able to expand and grow our audience.
The House of Government, Baku. CC duncan c / Flickr. Some rights reserved.We have worked hard to build trust, and now we have become a trusted source of information in Azerbaijan and on Azerbaijan. The way that our content is shared via social media is a key indicator of this trust.
Seeing people share and engage with our content is, in part, what gives me hope that independent journalism will, one day, be a cornerstone of the development of a free and prosperous society in Azerbaijan.
In 2012, you wrote that ‘we have freedom of speech on the internet, but no freedom after speech’. Over the past two years, the Azerbaijani government has hugely increased its surveillance capabilities, with surveillance technology developers finding the country 'one of the most lucrative prospects in the post-Soviet region'. Nevertheless, this year's Freedom on the Net report has found Azerbaijan's Internet freer than that of Russia or Kazakhstan. To what extent is freedom of expression possible online?
It is possible in the sense that there is relatively little state censorship of online content. But as I said, the censorship comes post facto, in that people risk being jailed for what they have said online. The charges are just a formality. According to our government, the narcotics industry in Azerbaijan is entirely controlled by independent journalists and civil society activists.
Essentially, they do not need to censor the internet. Russia and Kazakhstan are big countries; in Azerbaijan, about 25 percent of the population, and in all probability most people with internet access, lives in or around Baku. If you write something online that angers the authorities, the security services are within a twenty-minute drive. Threats, intimidation, harassment, arrest: these are also modes of online censorship.
MeydanTV's model could be described as crowd-funded opposition journalism—or, rather crowd-funded independent journalism. Could the model be replicated in other states with similarly repressive media environments?
It all depends on definitions and interpretations. Meydan TV produces independent journalism—and, accordingly, we have come under fire from both the government and the opposition. The government tortures our journalists; the opposition leaders call me and ask me not to publish their detractors.
Meydan TV is non-partisan. Our goal is simply to reflect the ideas and debates that are taking place on the Meydan, both online and offline.
The site's materials are available in Azeri, English and Russian. What are your impressions of Russian-language media coverage of Azerbaijan, and how does your content complement it?
The Russian-language media space in Azerbaijan is dominated by pro-government or pro-Kremlin media outlets. Pro-Kremlin media demonises the US and Europe on the one hand, praising Aliyev’s governance and wise policies as an example of how a post-Soviet country can be run opposing this to ‘failures’ in Ukraine and Georgia.
There are no Russian language opposition newspaper or online outlets in Azerbaijan. Meydan TV has very small online Russian version, but we have only one person working on this, because we have no resources currently to develop it. The Russian-speaking audience in Baku has become more critical towards the government on Facebook following the economic crisis: falling oil prices and massive devaluation of local currency hit Azerbaijan in 2015.
October 2013: Thousands of people attend a rally in Baku in support of presidential candidate Jamil Hasanli. In 2015, these days seem far behind. (c) Aziz Karimov / Demotix.Facebook is the only space where critical discussions on government's policies are taking place right now in Russian-speaking public sphere of Azerbaijan.
You have been described as one of Ilham Aliyev's ‘top ten enemies’. Even in Berlin, MeydanTV is broadcast from a secret location and you have personally received threats from Azerbaijani government officials. What can you tell us about life as an exile?
Aliyev is not my enemy. I do not live or think in those categories. I am doing my work and my only message is that this work will continue, with or without me. I created an organisation with a horizontal power structure where I decide very little.
MeydanTV is a network that can function fully in my absence—this is one of the things of which I am most proud. If you want to know more about my life in exile and our work, this short film in English (with Azerbaijani subtitles) was produced recently.
While you enjoy protection from the German government, Merkel has made no secret of the Federal Republic's desire to further develop ties with Azerbaijan, Germany’s seventh largest oil supplier. Are European governments completely impotent in the face of the Aliyev regime given its strategic role in energy diplomacy?
I don’t oppose bilateral economic engagement with Azerbaijan. But that engagement should never preclude frank conversations about governance, democracy, rule of law and human rights issues. Business deals should not eclipse international support for civil society or independent media, and acceptance of human rights abuses should never be a pre-condition or by-product of economic engagement. Policies of accepting and appeasing the dictatorships are high risk when it comes to global security: authoritarian regimes foster terrorism, propaganda, structural corruption, and political extremism.
I would also dispute the notion that energy is the driving factor in all of this. Merkel’s statement reads to me like a series of fairly bland diplomatic platitudes, rather than a serious statement of intent. Governments aren’t cozying up to Azerbaijan so much as ignoring it because they're focused on Russia, ISIS, refugees, and a dozen other things closer to home and more immediate.
Some figures in the German media have maintained strong links with Azerbaijan's government, some less than savoury. How is Azerbaijan portrayed in the German media? What reception have they given you and your colleagues as a result?
I cannot complain about the German media. German media—and indeed a number of major international outlets—have covered the reality of the situation in Azerbaijan. During the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and the European Games this year, global events hosted by Azerbaijan at huge cost to the state, the country’s human rights crisis has been at the heart of international reporting.
This infuriated the government, which had seen these expensive events as ways to bolster Azerbaijan’s international standing. During the Games, our content was widely shared at the international level, by the Guardian, the Washington Post and the BBC. Various German media outlets also reached out to me for interviews and comments (such as ZDF, SZ, FAZ and WDR).
You have advised the Council of Europe on the cases of over 40 prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan. Following the recent release of Arif Yunus (now under house arrest) and the Aliyev government's staged victory in parliamentary elections, what future awaits dissidents currently behind bars? How much fight is left in Azerbaijan's beleaguered civil society, such as it is?
I am confident and very optimistic about prospects of civil society in Azerbaijan. The real story here is that even after 20 years of repression, the government has been unable to completely silence civil society. And now the ground is starting to shift. For the last 22 years, the Aliyevs have had billions flowing in from the oil and gas industry.
But with the decline in global oil prices, this cash flow is beginning to dry up, and with it, the primary source of political authority. The 2016 state budget is being cut by around six billion Euros, and hundred thousands of people are expected to lose their jobs.
With the decline in global oil prices, the cash flow is beginning to dry up, and with it, the primary source of political authority
The real question for 2016 is how bad economic crisis will hit Azerbaijan. How will the authorities try to manage this situation in an era of low oil prices and falling oil production? The government’s long-term failure to invest in the non-oil sector will have disastrous consequences for the public. This may well precipitate a major political crisis; under these conditions, civil society can make a comeback, and lead a peaceful and well-managed democratic transformation—but not without international political support. Civil society must be strengthened now, so that we can manage a peaceful and efficient democratic transformation when the time comes.
Rauf Mirkadyrov’s case is an example of injustice that may happen to any journalist in Azerbaijan. The accusations are absurd and the chances that he will be released soon are very low. Many were surprised when Aliyev decided not to let Arif and Leyla Yunus die in jail. But on the other hand, the number of political prisoners has significantly increased in 2015, especially when the authorities decided to jail peaceful religious activists and leaders from Nardaran. Aliyev did not pardon any of the political prisoners on 31 December.
This can lead to fundamental political changes in one or another direction in Azerbaijan: towards a more closed system (totalitarianism) or a political and economic opening.
Standfirst image: Emin Mill. CC MeydanTV.