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.
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.