Open Mic

A popular radio host tests press restrictions in Azerbaijan

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.

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, 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.

There have been a handful of violent incidents against reporters. A reporter was kidnapped and tortured in Baku in March 2006. Two different news reporters have been stabbed. Yet another was attacked by security guards, who denied hurting him when he tried to take his claim to police. Editor Elmar Huseynov was shot and killed in 2005. Huseynov had edited Monitor, a weekly magazine that fed its readers a constant stream of scoops. In an open letter, jailed editor Fatullayev accused the government of killing Huseynov. Ismayilova discussed the charges on her show. Afterward, she was summoned to the Ministry of National Security, where officials tried to convince her to sign a paper agreeing not to talk or write about Huseynov’s assassination. She refused.

The government denies any involvement in the crime, and it remains unsolved.

So far, Ismayilova has remained untouched. She said she is careful about her actions and image in public. “I restrict myself a lot,” she said. She quit smoking a year ago, but before that she would never light up in public, particularly outside of Baku, where women smoking is frowned upon. “I don’t want people to stop sending their daughters to journalism school because of the bad publicity,” she said.

There are other factors working in her favor to protect her from official harassment. She works for an international organization, which offers her a measure of protection. “If an employee of Radio Liberty is murdered, the government thinks that the FBI will investigate,” said Emin Huseynov, who runs the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, a non-profit that tracks journalists in Azerbaijan. “Locals don’t feel safe. Usually the arrest doesn’t spark as much reaction as journalists operating in Western agencies.”

Ismayilova avoids satire, which is what landed the two bloggers in jail. And she’s one of the few popular female journalists in what is still a male-dominated profession. In Azerbaijan, it is taboo to jail a woman, and public opinion would likely turn on the government if the police were to beat up Ismayilova.

Her closest call came last year, after she and a colleague broke a story about Silk Way Holding, a company with an almost complete monopoly over Azerbaijan’s airline industry. Using documents obtained from the State Committee on Financial Securities, Ismayilova and a colleague implied that the president’s twenty-one-year-old daughter may have illegally privatized her share of the company.

Days after the story ran on Radio Liberty’s website, Ismayilova’s bureau chief received a call from the government asking why she published such provocative stories and whether she wanted to be “dealt with.” But nothing else came of it.

The same is true of her other big scoops. She investigated the family businesses of Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov, highlighted the government’s efforts to artificially lower the infant mortality rate, and has reported on major environmental problems in some of the country’s cities.

Ismayilova doesn’t spend too much time worrying. She’s still freelancing long-form investigative pieces for and translating The Kite Runner, one of her favorite books, into Azerbaijani. All of this, of course, is in addition to the work of presenting a daily two-hour talk show with only one other full-time staffer. Mornings are spent scouring the news for topics, identifying potential guests, and sweet-talking them into coming onto the show. In the afternoon, she does her research and prepares questions. And then she’s live from five to seven.

After one recent taping, she and her producer were talking through the next day’s show. They had booked a popular comedian and actress for the second hour. The producer warned Ismayilova not to talk about politics with the actress. “It’s not her thing,” he said. At first, Ismayilova agreed. But then she paused. “If she starts praising the president, then it’s fair game,” she said.

On her show, no political claim goes unquestioned.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.