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 EurasiaNet.org 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.