WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, marked World Press Freedom Day by expressing concern over increasing reports of intimidation and violence towards journalists in Azerbaijan.
The U.N. General Assembly proclaimed May 3rd World Press Freedom Day in 1993. Every year, World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to celebrate the value of free press and inform the public about instances where this universal right is violated.
In many countries around the world, journalists, editors, publishers and photographers literally risk their lives to inform their peers and report to the world what they see and experience. Last year alone, 179 journalists were jailed and another 46 killed worldwide.
In a letter to President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Berman states: “I am writing to express my growing alarm regarding the climate of intimidation and violence towards journalists in Azerbaijan. Over the past few months, incidents have highlighted long-held concerns regarding the ability to express one’s thoughts and opinions freely in your country.”
On April 18, five journalists were targeted and beaten by security personnel of the state oil company, and one month prior, a respected contributor to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azeri service was the focus of a campaign of intimidation which remains unresolved.
Later this month, journalists from around Europe and the world will converge on Baku, Azerbaijan, host of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, putting Azerbaijan in the international spotlight.
A copy of the letter sent to President Aliyev appears below.
May 3, 2012
His Excellency Ilham Aliyev
Republic of Azerbaijan
c/o Embassy of Azerbaijan
2741 34th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Dear Mr. President:
I am writing to express my growing alarm regarding the climate of intimidation and violence towards journalists in Azerbaijan. Over the past few months, incidents have highlighted long-held concerns regarding the ability to express one’s thoughts and opinions freely in your country.
On April 18, five journalists were beaten by security personnel of the state oil company SOCAR. Idrak Abbasov, a journalist with the Zeralko newspaper, was savagely kicked and hit. The journalists were reporting on the demolition of houses, which SOCAR says were illegally built on company land.
As a result of his attack, Mr. Abbasov lost consciousness for six hours and was hospitalized with a concussion and a severe injury to an eye. Only a month before, he was internationally recognized for his long-time investigative work by receiving an award from the Index on Censorship, an organization that defends freedom of expression around the world.
A month previously, Khadija Ismailova, a respected contributor to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Azeri service was the focus of a campaign of intimidation and coercion due to her investigative journalism. On March 7, Ms. Ismailova received pictures of an intimate nature and a note threatening her with defamation of character if she continued her work.
A week later, an inappropriate video purportedly of Ms. Ismailova appeared on a website. In addition, two state-controlled newspapers Yeni Azerbaijan and Iki Sahil both ran articles discrediting her character.
I believe these acts are an attempt to silence Ms. Ismailova and force her to discontinue her journalistic work looking into charges of government corruption. Despite these spurious actions, Ms. Ismailova is defiant and is continuing to exercise her right to freedom of expression.
On March 15, your office released a statement condemning the intrusion into the private life of Ms. Ismailova and announced an investigation into the violation of her privacy.
I urge your government to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible for the aforementioned cases and to protect journalists against future threats and violations of their privacy.
Freedom of expression and information are both essential components for developing pluralistic societies and safeguarding human rights. It is vital that they are upheld in Azerbaijan.
HOWARD L. BERMAN