When the results were announced and Ilham was declared victorious, violent protests broke out in Baku. A handful of opponents were killed in the scuffle.

But Ekho didn’t report on the violence, instead choosing to publish only the government line. Despite their sympathies, the editors feared that they might get arrested or shut down. “We would give the stories, and then at 2 a.m., when the papers would go to the printer, I would see that the story had totally changed,” Ismayilova said. “The first night, I cut my last name out of the piece.”

A couple of days later, she resigned.

Ismayilova went on to report for other publications, including the English-language Caspian Business News and EurasiaNet.org, an online outlet operated by the Open Society Institute that reports on the Caucasus. But she was frustrated with Azerbaijan’s reporting scene. She worked as a grant manager for a US-based media development program that focused on promoting international education. Eventually, she took a job in a consulting company assisting the government with investments outside the oil industry. She lasted four months.

“Corruption was taking place in front of my eyes,” she said. “I discovered that my own principles are shaking.” One day, she paid a small bribe to get a document she needed from a government agency to meet a deadline. That was the day she resigned.

Ismayilova moved to Washington, DC, and took a job reporting and translating for Voice of America. There, for a regularly scheduled radio program, she produced a recurring segment on the abuse of Azerbaijanis living in Iran. She got thankful letters, she said, from prisoners in Iran who said their torture stopped after Ismayilova aired their segments.

“I was having an impact,” she said. But a new editor canceled the show and asked her to focus more on translation. Soon after, she returned to Azerbaijan to freelance and train investigative journalists. In 2008, when the position of bureau chief opened up at Radio Liberty, a US-funded news agency that operates in countries where press freedom is limited, Ismayilova was invited to apply.

She was offered the job, along with a daily two-hour radio show. A few months ago, Ismayilova gave up the bureau chief title because she was tired of the administrative tasks. But she continues to host her show, where she has developed a loyal following. One of her fans, an Azeri man from the United Kingdom, was so distraught when he heard that she was stepping down as bureau chief that he flew to Baku to support her. He, like others, was afraid that Ismayilova had been pressured to leave her post by the government, which is infamous for using any means of influence to keep reporters and editors from airing any criticism.

Hopes for Press Freedom Short-Lived
There were high hopes for a free press after Azerbaijan won its independence from Russia in 1991. But those who imagined a strong civil society were quickly disappointed. Shortly after the country gained its independence, the government began cracking down on the press. It put censorship laws into place that required prior approval before stories were published.

In 1998, the government got rid of these rules. Ironically, that made things worse. Police began arresting reporters who wrote stories that the government didn’t like. Companies were banned from taking out advertisements in many opposition papers. Newspapers had to be printed at the Azerbaijan Publishing House, which is managed by the president’s office.

“Self-censorship predominates, even in so-called opposition newspapers,” said Rovshan N. Bagirov, who directs the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation in Azerbaijan. “The situation is very sad, and it’s going down rather than improving.”

Things got worse after Ilham Aliyev took power in 2003. The president is notoriously sensitive, and he has never given an interview to a local outlet.

“Ilham Aliyev’s family is a taboo theme for journalists,” said reporter Zamin Haci, who says his editors have faced constant threat of arrest. “If the journalists freely criticize the ruling establishment, their newspaper is simply closed.”

Blackmail became a common tactic: for example, last year, a sex tape of an opposition editor was released to the public. In 2009, the government forbade the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe from broadcasting on its FM airwaves. Ismayilova’s fans listen to her show on the Internet or with satellite or shortwave radios.

Then there are the arrests. Newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev was imprisoned in 2007 after publishing a series of stories that were highly critical of the Azeri government. Last year, two bloggers—Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade—were jailed for “hooliganism” after they produced a short video lampooning government inefficiency that went viral on the Internet. Milli and Hajizade were released in November 2010, though they are not allowed to leave the country.

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor for The Atlantic Cities. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.