Khadija Ismayilova commands an audience. It’s the first thing you notice about her, in a country ruled overwhelmingly by men, whether you are in her office or on the other end of her nightly broadcast.
In Azerbaijan, although the press is nominally free, reporters are routinely harassed, beaten, jailed, and even murdered. But Ismayilova is on the air two hours a day, five days a week, demanding that government officials, opposition leaders, and other public figures acknowledge their mistakes and explain themselves. For her, no topic is off-limits and every issue is fodder for debate. During one recent show, she held forth on Azerbaijan’s economy, quizzing two guests on why the country ranked so poorly in the Heritage Foundation’s recently released Index of Economic Freedom. Then, she moved on to the rather heady question of whether Azerbaijan—a small, former Soviet state nestled between Russia, Iran, and the Caspian Sea—has any sort of ideology.
As she spoke, Ismayilova’s three male producers fiddled with dials, screened calls, and read the texts and e-mails that were pouring in. Whenever there was something worth reading on the air, they sent her an instant message. One caller complained that the nine members of his family were living in a two-bedroom apartment while the country’s ruling class got rich off of oil money. Another argued that Azerbaijan’s ideology is set only by the president.
Ismayilova draws an audience of more than 10,000 listeners each day, in a country of roughly 9 million. While many journalists censor themselves, Ismayilova is famous for her dogged, devil’s advocate approach to questioning her guests. When members of Azerbaijan’s opposition party come on to her show, they ask her to bring on a representative from New Azerbaijan, the country’s ruling party. “They say I’m much tougher to take on than the ruling party,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m mean to everyone,” she continued. “That’s the way I like my show.”
Ismayilova’s honesty puts her at risk in Azerbaijan, where the government has severely cracked down on press freedom. The government has made it almost impossible for independent outlets to exist by keeping tight control over printing and advertising opportunities. It refuses to allow independent radio and television stations to broadcast on its airwaves.
Most troubling, attacks against journalists are increasing. The editor of an independent news magazine was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 2005. Two bloggers were jailed for over a year after producing a video that poked fun at the government’s spending. Though the two were released in November, another editor remains behind bars.
The United States embassy has criticized the current media landscape. In its 2010 Advancing Freedom and Democracy Report, the State Department said it faces an “uphill effort” to promote democratic institutions like a free, robust press. But US officials are forced to tread carefully. Azerbaijan is a crucial ally for the United States. It is one of the few pro-Western countries in the region, and it also plays a key part in the Afghanistan war—American planes are allowed to fly in its airspace and to use Azerbaijan airports to refuel. Azerbaijan also boasts a sizable oil reserve that Europe depends on, particularly during times of instability in the Middle East.
Ismayilova, thirty-four, said her reporting career began by accident. She studied Turkish literature in college and, while still in school, started translating for a Turkish newspaper, a job she kept after her 1997 graduation. Days after she started, the editor was desperate for someone to cover a news conference. Ismayilova went, and liked it. Within months, she had become a correspondent and editor at the newspaper. She left for another paper after fights with the management. Two weeks later, her new paper’s whole staff quit because of a scandal between the publisher and the editor.
She went on to work at a series of other Azeri papers before landing at the Russian-language paper Ekho. The paper was created by reformers, and she quickly settled in, confident that this was a place where she could do hard-hitting investigative work. She published a piece that showed Azerbaijan had lost about half a billion dollars in investments because the government would not work with electric supply company Siemens. Thanks to her story, every household in Baku, the capital, received a free electric meter.
Her ability to investigate broadly changed after the 2003 presidential elections, though.
Azerbaijan’s first stable president, Heydar Aliyev, was stepping down, and he hoped to hand power to his son, Ilham. In fact, it seemed that Heydar was willing to do almost anything to make that happen. Human Rights Watch accused the government of stacking election commissions, banning local non-governmental organizations from monitoring the vote, and obstructing opposition rallies. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe accused the government of fraud.