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.