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Forced limbo: how Azerbaijan prevents journalists from leaving the country

Many authoritarian regimes would banish troublemakers. But in Azerbaijan, dissidents and critical journalists are prevented from leaving the country. 

Khadija Ismayilova, center, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has become a symbol of defiance during after her ordeal with Azerbaijan's authorities. (c) Aziz Karimov / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“1937 is back again with a vengeance.” These words, written in 1988 by a popular local singer to describe Stalin-era repressions, are on the lips of many in Azerbaijan once again. They’re often quoted on social media as a comment on the country’s latest round of arrests. A recent opposition rally in Baku on 17 September against the country’ recent constitutional referendum is a good example — the authorities used the opportunity to detain journalists alongside political activists

The authoritarian regime of president Ilham Aliyev has a large toolkit of repression — from arrest to surveillance, harassment and deportation. Yet in some cases, the Azerbaijani authorities don’t directly arrest troublesome activists and journalists. Instead, they simply ban them from leaving the country. 

Many journalists run into trouble with the authorities in Azerbaijan, who continue to harass them regardless of criticism of international human rights organisation

Over 15 people are in this situation. Usually, they are faced with other charges, such as tax evasion. It’s a common tactic against freelance journalists. Earlier this year Meydan TV, an independent online media outlet based outside Azerbaijan, was investigated for tax evasion and “illegal entrepreneurship”. The names of 15 journalists were mentioned in the criminal case which followed

These same charges were levelled against Khadiya Ismayilova, the acclaimed freelance journalist and contributor to the Azerbaijani service of RFE/RL. In 2014, Ismayilova was sentenced to seven and a half years imprisonment on charges of tax evasion, abuse of power and incitement to suicide, and soon became a cause celebre among Azerbaijani dissidents. Since Ismayilova was released in May 2016, she has set down to work on her unfinished investigative reports — in an even more oppressive environment for critical journalists.

Many journalists run into trouble with the authorities in Azerbaijan, who continue to harass them regardless of criticism of international human rights organisations. The stories of Aynur Elgunesh, Natig Javadly, Guler Mehdizade and Sevinj Vagifqizi are just some of many.

Keeping it domestic

“It was about 1:30am when our plane landed in Baku airport,” Sevinj Vagifqizi, a reporter for MeydanTV, writes to me over e-mail. “We’d just returned from Ukraine, where we had attended a training programme for journalists. When I reached passport control, I was informed by the Department for Combating Organised Crime (DCOC) that I am banned from leaving Azerbaijan.” Two other freelance journalists on assignment with MeydanTV, Aytan Farhadova and Izolda Aghaeva, were also present. They were told exactly the same.

“I told them that actually I was entering the country, not leaving it,” Vagifqizi says. She and her colleagues were then searched and handed over to the police, though the border guards presented no documents or warrants in the process. 

September 2015: Sevinj Vaqifqizi, Izolda Aghayeva and Ayten Farhadova are detained at Baku's Heydar Aliyev International Airport. Source: MeydanTV.Vagifqizi says that the police later took her and her fellow journalists’ money and mobile phones. At roughly 4am they were delivered to the DCOC. “At 11am, the deputy chief of the investigations department came and said that we had been brought here because of the criminal case against Meydan TV. As we had been called as witnesses in this case, we had been banned from leaving the country.”

“I suspected that I was the subject of the same ban,” Natig Javadly, another reporter, tells me. He was informed about the ban when called as a witness in the case against MeydanTV. “It was last September when an inspector gave me clear information that I was banned from leaving the country.” 

While several of the Meydan journalists sought legal advice, Javadly, together with his lawyer, made an official application to Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor’s office to reverse the ban. 

Yet Javadly has little hope of a reprieve. “The court said that the reason for this ban is the criminal case against MeydanTV,” he says. His appeal was logged, but he doesn’t expect any positive results. “I don’t seriously expect anything, because there were similar appeals which were unsuccessful.”

After being banned from leaving Azerbaijan, Vagifqizi also tried to get the authorities to explain themselves. She sent a request to Azerbaijan’s State Border Service and DCOC, though the latter said they were not responsible. According to them, the decision was taken by the General Prosecutor’s Office. With the help of a lawyer, Vagifqizi filed a court case. To date, the Nasimi District Court in Baku has kept this ban in effect. “We believe the ban is illegal,” says Javadly, “and will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)”. 

Life in the waiting zone

This ban on free movement is taking its toll on journalists’ morale. “I can’t take any trips, including training workshops which are important for every journalist,” Vagifqizi tells me. “I have invitations, but I can’t do anything with them […] I feel like I’m in a cage, with my hands tied.”

“It’s possible to live with this,” reflects Aytan Farhadova, another freelance journalist working with Meydan, “but before my flight to Baku, I informed my family about the time of arrival. When we were detained in Baku airport, I wished that they didn’t know about my situation. Then at least I could just tell them that my flight was delayed.”

17 September, 2016: activists and journalists are detained during a protest against Azerbaijan's planned constitutional reforms. Source: MeydanTV

When Azerbaijan’s ANS TV reported on Farhadova’s case, an official from the southwestern Zangilan region informed her family that Farhadova had been arrested. “That’s why everyone was panicking. I always try and keep my family away from such things… but since then, everybody has known,” she sighs. 

Farhadova also contested the ban, but Baku’s Nasimi district court upheld it. Like other journalists, Farhadova plans to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights. 

The Azerbaijani authorities’ approach seems confusing. From their perspective, it would be a better idea to let critical journalists leave the country

Aynur Elgunesh, another freelance journalist, has faced problems at the border since 2014. According to Elgunesh, on every trip she has run into delays at passport control as border guards call their colleagues to check information about her. “Every time, they let me cross the border after a long wait and series of telephone calls. During these calls, I was identified as ‘person number five’. When I asked for the reason, they never answered.”

Elgunesh has written many letters to Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor’s Office, the Border Guard and Ministry of Internal Affairs, but they answered that she was not subject to any ban.

Finally, on 6 December, 2015, on route to Sweden, Aynur was informed that she does not have permission to leave the country. Once again, the court case against MeydanTV was the central factor. Once again, the Nasimi district court in Baku rejected all appeals, and Elgunesh sent the case to the ECHR. 

To banish or to ban? 

The Azerbaijani authorities’ approach seems confusing. From their perspective, it would be a better idea to let critical journalists leave the country, rather than keeping them in the country where they can more easily dig up investigative stories. 

In any case, distance is less of an obstacle these days. Farhadova says that recent investigations into organised corruption cases show that even journalists based abroad can continue their work and still have a real impact on Azerbaijani society. “Nowadays,” she says, “social networks are stronger than any media outlet. I think that this ban is just to intimidate. It’s to let us know that they’re keeping an eye on us.” 

“Sometimes I joke that the government loves us so much that it doesn’t want to let us go,” says Vagifqizi. “I believe that this ban is because of my work at MeydanTV. The issues we deal with irritate the authorities. They want us to behave as pro-government media outlets do, or to shut up. But they’re not able to do that.”

Prospects for media freedom in Azerbaijan are getting bleaker, even compared with the situation over the past three to four years

Javadly sees the travel ban as a symptom of Azerbaijan’s wider political culture. On 26 September, Azerbaijan held a referendum on 29 proposed constitutional amendments, which hands even more power to president Ilham Aliyev. The country’s Constitutional Court approved the proposal in a hurry, without any legal consultation or any parliamentary or public debate. “So, banning journalists from leaving the country is not so unusual,” Javadly tells me. “The government isn’t interested in developing free media. There’s no need to search for some paradox in these cases.” 

Aynur Elgunesh believes the travel ban is not only a way to intimidate journalists, but to remind them that ultimately their work depends on the goodwill of the state. “The state reminds us that we are face-to-face with danger at every single moment [of our work]”, she concludes.

A flashmob held by N!DA, whose members have also faced travel bans. Source: N!DA.Guler Mehdizade, a Baku-based journalist, compares this situation to the image Azerbaijan’s authorities promote in international PR campaigns. The end result, Mehdizade thinks, is that journalists simply work even harder. 

Alongside Azerbaijan’s long-suffering journalists, there are also cases of other dissidents being denied permission to leave, from members of Ilgar Mammadov’s Republican Alternative (REAL) to young activists from the N!DA youth movement

“And finally, I crossed over”

Mehdizade received her travel ban in July 2015. The same procedures happened to her. It wasn’t completely unexpected — she’d heard of other journalists’ facing similar problems.

On 13 February, Mehdizade decided to test the ban by attempting to cross the Azerbaijani-Georgia border. Her suspicions were confirmed, and she appealed to the authorities. The ban was upheld (a result of the criminal case against MeydanTV). Mehdizade also plans to bring the case before the ECHR. 

Journalist Shirin Abbasov was arrested in September 2015 as part of the authorities' campaign against MeydanTV. Source: MeydanTV.As somebody fond of travel, Mehdizade was very depressed. “It really hurts when you hear at the border: ‘Lady, what have you done to get you the ban?’ There are special checking procedures — they open your luggage and drop everything on the floor in front of the people. The way these people are looking at you, it’s awful.” 

Mehdizade’s ban has also affected her husband’s travel plans. Even if it were lifted, she adds, the authorities’ harassment and questioning of critical journalists wouldn’t necessarily stop. In fact, poor communication between government agencies could lead to it lasting longer. “It’s really a weird feeling to not be able to leave the country,” she reflects. “I could live and work there happily for decades and never leave the country. But when you know about the limitation, you get depressed. You feel like you’re in prison.” 

Behind closed borders 

The release of Khadija Ismayilova in May 2016 may have been widely celebrated, but it wasn’t necessarily cause for optimism. As Ismayilova put it herself, Azerbaijan’s political prison has a revolving door — on the day of Ismayilova’s release, the Baku authorities detained blogger Amid Seleymanov and photojournalist Elnur Mukhtarov for 10 days

Prospects for media freedom in Azerbaijan are getting bleaker, even compared with the situation over the past three to four years. Mehdizade speaks of a noticeable increase in arrests, bans and threats against journalists over the past year. 

With president Aliyev newly emboldened after yesterday’s rigged constitutional referendum, the picture can only worsen. Meanwhile, journalists under threat will experience these defeats at close quarters, from behind closed borders.

Want to know more about Azerbaijan's opposition politics? Read Rebecca VIncent's profile of Ilgar Mammadov, the head of the country's REAL movement who's currently in prison.

About the author

Gulnar Salimova is a freelance journalist from Azerbaijan. She has also worked as a photojournalist and was named Azerbaijan’s Photographer of the Year in 2014. Her work has appeared in Chai-Khana and the Kyiv Post, among other publications.


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