Khadija Ismayilova

“It was accidental that I became a journalist,” said Khadija Ismayilova, a well-known Azerbaijani radio reporter who is now held [http://bit.ly/1DcZuAG] in pre-trial detention in Baku.

At the time, she was working as a translator at the offices of a newspaper in Baku. Gradually, Ismayilova traded her job as a translator for one as a reporter. She said that she was “not as serious and outspoken” during her early years in the profession.

Everything changed in 2005, when prominent investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov was murdered near his home in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

“They killed him at his doorstep. It was March 2, 2005,” Ismayilova remembers. “And the first thing I thought when I heard that he was killed was ‘it’s my responsibility too. It’s my fault as well, because he was doing it alone’…We all were doing this easy journalism and he was doing the uncovering…alone.”

From that day on, Ismayilova made it her mission to ensure that the space of critical investigative reporting was not void in Azerbaijan.

She was hosting a weekly program on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani service in 2012, where she reported on corruption and malfeasance in the country’s government and the unethical business dealings of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family. She used exhaustive research of public and corporate records to find evidence of exploitation in the government’s highest ranks.

That May, she uncovered that the multi-million dollar event hall constructed for the 2012 Eurovision singing competition was built in part by a subcontractor in which the first family has hidden ownership. Ismayilova revealed covert holdings by the president’s wife and daughters in various telecommunications, construction and mining companies, many of which receive state contracts.

Due to the sensitive nature of her work, there were many efforts to discredit Ismayilova. One such incident was in March 2012, when she became the target of a massive smear campaign that threatened to humiliate her and put her life at risk unless she stopped reporting.

A letter was sent anonymously to Ismayilova calling her a “whore” and instructing her to “behave.” The package contained photos taken covertly of Ismayilova in an intimate situation with her boyfriend. It was clear the images came from a camera hidden in the reporter’s apartment. In a country where “honor killings” still take place, exposing photos of an intimate nature could potentially be life-threatening.

In spite of the dangers, Ismayilova said, “When I got that blackmail letter, anger was bigger than fear.”

Some media outlets received the compromising images. The blackmailer threatened to put video footage from Ismayilova’s bedroom – also taken with a hidden camera – online. “There were lots of cases of blackmail of journalists,” Ismayilova said. “I was totally aware of the risk.”

Ismayilova made the decision not to give in to her blackmailer’s demands. She concentrated on presenting her regular 90-minute radio program, which was set to air the day she received the threatening letter.

The video was posted online. Before and after, Ismayilova said, she was encouraged by messages of support from fellow journalists and others in her country. Her friends took up shifts guarding her apartment, since the government refused to provide protection for her during the incident.

Ismayilova said the government was the instigator of the threats against her. She tracked down a telephone company employee who told her that he had been ordered to install a new line to her apartment, which she never asked for. The employee saw at least one unidentified individual who went inside Ismayilova’s home to lay the indoor portion of the line, which was used for tapping. She discovered that the camera in her bedroom was planted there in July 2011 – eight months before the blackmail.

The IWMF honored Ismayilova’s commitment to truth seeking in 2012 with the Courage in Journalism Award. She was the first ever winner from Azerbaijan.

Defenders of international press freedom rallied around Khadija Ismayilova when a new, concerted state effort to silence her critical reportage placed her career in jeopardy again in 2014. This time, it was an accusation of espionage.

On Feb. 18, 2014, she scanned and posted a document that reportedly included evidence of the national security service’s efforts to recruit an informant to undermine political opposition. In her Facebook post, Ismayilova said she had received the document from a former security service employee.

That same day, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General’s office brought her in for questioning in Baku. Her reporting triggered a criminal investigation that could result in up to seven years of prison time.

Asserting her right to work domestically as a journalist without fear of reprisal, Ismayilova took her testimony to Facebook on the same day. In a post titled “If I Get Arrested,” she stated her wishes of democratic countries, diplomats, and international organizations to take a firm stand on freedom of speech in Azerbaijan.

Her instructions for fellow international journalists were clear as well – to inform the public that she is being persecuted for her anti-corruption investigations. To ensure her efforts are not lost, in the event that she is arrested, Ismayilova assured supporters that her editors and colleagues would complete her unfinished investigative projects.

The Azerbaijani government has a long history of attempts to quash free press. Crimes against journalists are committed with impunity. The 2005 murder of Elmar Huseynov, Ismayilova’s call to action, was never solved. The 2011 murder of another journalist, Rafig Tagi, has also gone unpunished. Dozens of journalists have been beaten and attacked; more have been imprisoned for “hooliganism”, defamation or treason.

RFE/RL reports that as many as 15 of its journalists and bloggers are currently behind bars in Azerbaijan. The government recently brought [http://bit.ly/1Bu0XA5] criminal charges onto Sevinc Osmanqizi, another well-known Azerbaijani broadcast journalist. Her trial, scheduled for Feb. 3, 2015, will be closed one, as the court announced its decision to exclude members of the media from it. Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 160th out of the 180 countries included in its 2014 press freedom index.

Ismayilova’s pre-trial detention was extended on Jan. 27, 2015 by another two months. It had been due to expire on February 5.