Press Freedom: Tales of Azerbaijan

It’s been almost five years. She hasn’t been to her hometown since April 2014. She has no choice.  Threats to her life have compelled her to take this difficult decision.  Many might wonder, what triggered these threats? Her biggest crime is that she has chosen to be a journalist and write about Azerbaijani politics without toeing the line of the political establishment in Azerbaijan.

While the threats have not subsided to this day, she continues to write and speak about her country (Azerbaijan) and other issues including human rights and press freedom. Recently, she has been investigating the role of information controls in Azerbaijan and how the authorities are using it to silence online dissent. Last year, she looked at the role of information controls in her home country as an Open Technology Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Her work has been featured on numerous renowned platforms including Al Jazeera, Open Democracy, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty and Global Voices. In 2014, she was featured on the BBC 100 Women Changemakers. Her name is Arzu Geybulla.

Digital Rights Monitor, DRM, exclusively talked to Arzu to learn more about her journey as a journalist and free speech activist.

DRM: If you have to briefly share your story, what would it be?

Arzu: I was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I moved to Turkey for the first time when I was accepted into a university. I spent most of time as an adult between Azerbaijan and Turkey. I never really thought that I would live in Turkey for a very long time. It was quite interesting to see myself end up in Turkey.

I am a journalist. I focus a lot on freedom of expression issues, censorship and human rights violations.  I started writing as a hobby on my blog in 2008 called “the  flying carpets and broken pipelines”. Azerbaijan is known for its beautiful carpets, and corruption, hence the name.. I was basically writing my frustrations of the daily life. At that time I was working for a think tank that was doing research on gender development and gender policy in the country.  I was meeting a lot of interesting women activists, entrepreneurs and was getting exposed to these sad and inspiring stories at the same time.  Spending time in the country after studying abroad was an eye opening experience. So I started writing about this and that.

A year later in 2009, I was offered a position at Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, an Italian think tank and media platform which looks at Turkey, Caucasus and Balkans.  The former Azerbaijani contributor was leaving and they found me through my blog and offered me to become their correspondent.  This is how my journalism career began. I never imagined myself in journalism; I always wanted to be in the government or working for an International organisation. I studied International relations. But this opportunity opened a whole new world of freelancing, meeting other journalists and contributing to other platforms. One thing led to another. I did some journalism, think tank work and research work.  I worked for NGOs and INGOs and thus managed to get a taste of everything that I wanted to do, minus the work with the government because I don’t think the government of Azerbaijan will ever hire me.

So in a nutshell, I consider myself a journalist who is passionate about these issues and continue to write as much as I can and collaborate with other platforms.

DRM: You moved to Turkey after there were threats to your life. What convinced you to move abroad?

Arzu: I moved to Turkey before the threats full time in 2010. My partner is from Turkey so he wanted us to stay in Istanbul. I left my job and moved with him. The threats began in 2014. I haven’t been back into Azerbaijan since 2014. Until then, I was easily travelling back and forth. I worked there, did workshops and attended meetings.  Since the threats began, I stopped going there.   The threats began at a time when I was working for a Turkish Armenian newspaper called Agos.  I was a correspondent writing columns every now and then. Most of my writing focused on Azerbaijan, the relationship between two countries (Azerbaijan-Armenia), the region but wasn’t a regular contributor.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are in conflict since 1980s. The conflict escalated in 1988 and then a ceasefire was signed in 1994. Since then, the relationship never normalized. Part of territory remains under occupation, it remains a contested issue. The governments of both countries have used the conflict to stay in power.  In that context, me as an Azerbaijani, going to work for a Turkish Armenian newspaper was considered an act of “active treason” in the words of some government officials. But the reason I joined the newspaper was not spontaneous decision. During 2010-2013, I collaborated with Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, a non-for-profit that did conflict transformation work in Armenia and Azerbaijan. During those years, , I focused  on conflict transformation, reconciliation and dialogue building. One of the last groups I got to work with were journalists from Armenia and Azerbaijan. This was one of the most interesting groups I worked with during my time at Imagine Center. When I returned to Istanbul, the offer from Agos felt timely. I realized, that it was one thing to talk about conflict sensitive journalism, and another to actually be part of the community of reporters who did similar work. So, I took up the offer, when editor in chief at the time, reached out to me. If not now then when, I asked?

In 2014, a year after I joined Agos, I was approached by someone from a mediocre publication in Azerbaijan,   asking to interview me as a successful Azerbaijani woman living abroad, and doing independent work.  Once I received the questions, I immediately knew this was just a bait. All the journalist wanted to know was about me collaborating with Armenian newspaper. I did the interview nevertheless which eventually resulted in a wave of harassment, and a defamation campaign which continues to this day.  Even today, when I get accusations from a government affiliated institution or government employees, I am presented as the Agos correspondent even though I stopped writing for Agos when the threats began. It was the newspaper itself that decided this was the safest option, as they were concerned for my safety and well being. Among the harassment and rape threats, there were also death threats and the management took it very seriously. So this is the story of 2014 and profound changes in my life.

DRM: Were these threats restricted to digital media?

Arzu: These threats were discussed in both traditional media outlets, pro-government newspapers and their websites and also discussed widely online.  The first death threat I received was on Facebook.  What was happening on social media platforms was also very interesting.  There were these pictures of me with false information on the work that I had done, which would trigger a lot of commentary packed with derogatory terms and very sexist comments. It kind of went together. Periodically, there would be stories about me by the pro government media outlets. They would do shows about this “poor little girl, Arzu who has lost her path in life and instead pretends to be someone she isn’t” and that I  am a traitor and that  everything I said was a lie.

DRM: How many women journalists are brave enough to follow your path? Have they been self-censoring themselves to survive in Azerbaijan?

Arzu: We have some really brave women journalists in Azerbaijan. I don’t even consider myself part of the amazing group of women journalists we have because they are so much stronger and have been through so much more. One of the biggest stories that made a huge impact on the country was the story of Khadija Ismayilova (Ismayil).  She is an investigative reporter who was blackmailed with a sex tape for her work exposing corruption in the country.  She was filmed in her own apartment and then was blackmailed with that tape and pictures. The pictures were sent to her in an envelope with a note “Wh**e behave or you will be defamed.” The same pictures were sent to her brother. Azerbaijan is a very much patriarchal society. So there was this expectation that if Khadija didn’t stop her investigations that her brother would do something to her.  Years later, when she was arrested and sent to jail, I did a profile of Khadija and spoke to her (now late) mother. She told me, “I had to speak with my son. I told him that ‘they (authorities) are trying to ruin our family. Your sister is in jail not because she did something wrong but because of her investigative reporting.  If you do something to her, they will put you in jail too, we are going to be even more hurt….’”

So, to answer your question, we have amazing journalists like Khadija. We have reporters on the ground that can’t leave the country because they are on a travel ban or they won’t leave the country because they feel their place is there and many of these are women journalists.

DRM: Are they taking to social media to write independently?

 Arzu: We only have a handful of independent journalists. Only a few of them are women.  They already report for online media outlets.  They are already quite outspoken on social media.  In the context of Azerbaijan, it’s a little bit different. All the independent opposition media that had an office, no longer exist. And if they do, they have moved to online spaces. This is where most of these journalists write. But I also feel like human rights defenders and activists are more outspoken on social media rather than the journalists. As for the journalists, they use social media platforms to disseminate stories they had been working on. This is the trend I am seeing.

DRM: Has there been a case in Azerbaijan where online threats translated into physical threats?

Arzu: It’s been the opposite. We have had physical threats which would then move to online spaces. But it is done not just in the form of online harassment. There has been an increase in spear phishing or hacking attempts, which have become predominant way of targeting journalists, activists, and rights defenders. What often happens in offline spaces is that these people are targeted by the police.They are detained, or arrested and later can face trial, and jailed on bogus charges.  It’s the same for men and women

Other examples of online criticism translating into offline attacks, is the case of a journalist who wrote once something critical on Facebook about the football player from one of the local soccer teams. He was later attacked by several men who were later identified during the investigation as family members of the soccer player. While the attackers are currently in jail, the journalist died four days after the physical torture. Similarly, a renowned political commentator and journalist who wrote extensively about religion among other issues was stabbed to death on a street in Baku as a result of his writing. There was a ‘fatwa’ issued against him.

But I wouldn’t say that it starts with online threats and then turns into offline threats. It usually is a combination of both.

DRM: Azerbaijan had their presidential election in 2018. Who do you think was the biggest perpetrator of disinformation during the elections?

Arzu: It is the pro government media outlets who are the biggest perpetrators of disinformation. Even during elections, everything looks pure humor as most of the newspapers are pro-government and whatever they report on is not accurate.  They try to discredit independent and opposition media. It’s not just them. it’s also the people who work during the election time.

I was working with Radio Free Europe during the election week  in Azerbaijan and I remember this footage we received on the day of election.  It showed the head of the polling station was  replacing the ballot box with the other one . But there were cameras inside so in order to replace the boxes, he covered the camera with a paper. This was all on camera.  So I called that polling station and asked him why he covered the camera with a paper.  He refused to acknowledge what he did, and said that there was no such thing and that there was a technical glitch. And to my persisting questions, he kept saying that everything went smoothly. So this is the type of misinformation we see. I also think that the journalists, who particularly report for the government media are well-known so no one really reads them.  Those who actually want to see the real results or real observation comments go to social media or alternative news platforms and read the news.

It’s really hard to suggest that the level of misinformation increased during elections in Azerbaijan as everything pretty much is misinformation coming from the predominantly pro-government media, because that is the media that exists.

DRM: How is digital media evolving in Azerbaijan?

Arzu: Despite the crackdown on press freedom, one of the best things happening at the moment in Azerbaijan is grassroots media initiatives. We have been seeing more and more of them. If before, there were just a handful of online media initiatives now we see their number growing. And these people are very creative.  They are very resourceful. They also learn from the experiences of others. They don’t have an office because they realise their office space could be raided. They also know that they shouldn’t have a website because it could be under cyber-attack.  They use only social media tools and platforms (even though some do have websites). They ask their readers to contribute and send them footage, commentary, messages on Whatsapp, Telegram and Signal. And as people find their content online, they continue sending more. This working structure has also helped get government attention to the issues highlighted in stories. It gives people strength and means to demand solutions and when matters are not resolved, they report it to these new media platforms.

Having said this, I must say how much pressure these reporters are under and the chances of their arrest are high.  And it is not just them, their families could get arrested which is common methods used to censor journalists. Even if they leave, their family members stay behind and get harassed by the government. This harassment can range from temporary detention to arrests to other forms of persecution.



Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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