A new wave of repression in Azerbaijan is targeting foreign-funded independent media as well as journalists who criticize the government and expose high-level corruption.
Authorities have arrested at least six journalists and placed them in pretrial custody on bogus charges since November 20. And the number is growing; as I write, police have questioned at least three more.
The latest arrests include Rufat Muradli, a host of Kanal 13 online television channel, and Aziz Orujov, the channel’s founder. Kanal 13 has a large Azerbaijani subscriber base and social media following and is known for not being afraid to criticize the government.
Baku police arrested Muradli on December 2 on misdemeanor hooliganism and resisting police charges. A court, in a summary proceeding, sentenced him to 30 days detention. Police claim he refused to heed police warnings to stop cursing publicly, a dubious charge often invoked against critics.
On November 28, authorities accused Orujov of engaging in illegal construction and a court placed him in three months’ pretrial detention, an outrageous measure for anyone facing such charges. Moreover, according to his family, police questioned him about his journalism work and funding. This is not the first politically motivated prosecution for Orujov. In 2017, he was sentenced to six years on other bogus charges, and he was later released on probation.
Authorities also arrested Nargiz Absalamova, who works with independent online media outlet Abzas Media, on spurious smuggling charges. A court has also placed Absalamova in three-months’ pretrial detention.
Earlier in November, authorities arrested Ulvi Hasanli and Sevinc Vagifgizi, leaders of Abzas Media, which is known for its investigative journalism, and Mahammad Kekalov, a social entrepreneur who has also worked with Abzas. They too are in pretrial custody.
These arrests take place in the context of an anti-Western campaign by Baku officials. A handful pro-government and state media outlets have accused USAID, the US government’s primary funding and development agency, and the US Embassy in Baku of building a network of spies in Azerbaijan through educational programs in place since 1993. Following a smear campaign, the US Embassy canceled a gala event for the programs’ alumni.
Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry also summoned diplomats from the German, US, and French embassies on November 28 to accuse them of engaging in illegal financing of initiatives such as Abzas Media. The embassies rejected the accusations.
Azerbaijani authorities should immediately release the arrested journalists and end the targeting of what remains of independent voices in the country.
Source : HRW