It was supposed to be a punishment—220 hours plucking garbage off the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan.
Instead, journalist Khadija Ismayilova turned her community service assignment into an impromptu rally for change. In a Facebook post, Ismayilova told supporters she would be “sweeping for democracy,” bringing attention to the corruption and human rights abuses that plague the oil-rich country. Activists, journalists, and friends pledged to join her during the day.
For that, she faces the possibility of three months in jail.
Ismayilova is a rarity in Azerbaijan—an award-winning journalist who has exposed illegality and misdeeds by autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev and his family. She reports for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, where she also hosts a daily two-hour call-in show.
Ismayilova’s most recent run-in with the law began in January, when she was arrested for attending an unsanctioned anti-government rally in the center of the city. She refused to pay the 400-manat (roughly $510) fine, calling the charge “unconstitutional.”
She was sentenced to sweep the streets, but when government officials caught wind of the blossoming rally, they switched her to cleaning a rehabilitation center for the disabled.
Ismayilova refused—other activists have reportedly been beaten while performing indoor work. The government is now threatening to lock her up for at least three months. “They think they can humiliate me, but it’s not true,” Ismayilova says. “I want to use this as an opportunity to deliver a message.”
Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet country nestled between Iran and Russia, has an abysmal free speech record. The country ranks in the bottom quarter of Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index; the organization describes Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as a “predator of press freedom.” Journalists and editors are routinely beaten, jailed, blackmailed, and even murdered.
In 2008, reporter Agil Khalil fled the country after several attempts on his life. In 2010, bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade were imprisoned for producing a jokey video about donkeys. That same year, a sex tape of an opposition newspaper editor was leaked, effectively ending his career. (Though most of Azerbaijan’s media is state-controlled, there are a handful of independent outlets.)
Since 2011, the siege on civil society has only gotten worse. According to Human Rights Watch:
Over the last two years, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders on questionable or no evidence, and accused them of various drug or weapons possession, hooliganism, and disturbance of public order offenses.
In 2011, journalist Rafiq Tagi, editor of the newspaper Sanat, died under suspicious circumstances—Azerbaijani authorities still haven’t investigated his death. In 2012, a court froze the bank account of Azadliq, an opposition newspaper, effectively putting it out of business.
Ismayilova knows all this too well. Last year, someone hid cameras in her home and recorded her having sex. Those tapes were later released online; no one has been charged. The idea of an unmarried woman like Ismayilova engaging in any kind of sexual activity is particularly scandalous in conservative Azerbaijan.
Officials will decide later this month whether to send Ismayilova to jail, allow her to sweep the streets, or assign her some other punishment. In the meantime, Ismayilova says she will keep working. Just a few months ago, she released a scathing report proving that the Aliyev family secretly profited from the development of the multi-million dollar event hall used for the Eurovision Song Contest, which Azerbaijan hosted in 2012.
She is also training a new crop of journalists how to dig up government malfeasances as part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a nonprofit investigative journalism collective focused on Eastern Europe and Central Asia. And she has continued her own personal investigation into who set up secret camera inside her home, tracing one of the blackmail letters all the way back to a mailbox in Russia.
“Here, being an active citizen is a crime, and people are suffering,” she says. “We cannot wait until everyone has been silenced and then try to do something … what I’m doing is fighting against wrongdoings, wherever they are.”