European Federation of Journalists

Azerbaijan: Crackdown on independent media must stop

Electoral officials stick up a campaign poster of Azerbaijani president and presidential candidate Ilham Aliyev in Baku early on January 15, 2024, on the first day of the official campaigning ahead of the snap presidential election, which will be held on February 7. (Photo by TOFIK BABAYEV / AFP)

Azerbaijan is facing a worrying wave of arrests and repression against independent journalists and media outlets. Since November 2023, 10 journalists have been detained, according to Agence France Presse (AFP). The European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ-IFJ) strongly condemn the crackdown on media freedom as new arrests have taken place in recent days.

On 13 January 2024, Elnara Gasimova, a reporter with the Abzas Media investigative news site, was sentenced to a pre-trial detention until 4 April on charges of smuggling. Two days later, JAM news journalist Shahin Rzayev was arrested on charges of “petty hooliganism” and sentenced to a 15-day administrative arrest. 

November 2023 marked the beginning of the repression targeting investigative outlets and journalists critical of the government, as well as two activists and one opposition politician on fabricated charges.

Abzas Media, an investigative media outlet focusing on human rights, is among the media organisations under attack. Its director, Ulvi Hasanli, was detained at the Baku airport and charged with “smuggling foreign currency”. The police claimed that they found 40,000€ in cash after a five-hour search of the media outlet’s premises. During the interrogation, he was reportedly subjected to physical abuse and torture. Hasanli, as well as Abzas media chief editor Sevinj Vagifgizi and Hasanli’s assistant, Mahammad Kekalov, were remanded in custody for four months. If found guilty of the dubious charge of “conspiring to bring money into the country unlawfully,” they could face up to eight years in prison. 

Kanal13, an independent online TV channel broadcasting on Youtube since 2017, is also in the government’s sight: in November, its founder and director Aziz Orujov was detained and remanded into three months of pre-trial detention on alleged charges of building a house without a permit as well as on currency smuggling charges. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), prosecutors accused Orujov and a freelance journalist contributing to Kanal 13, Shamo Eminov, of bringing 90,000 manat (48,000€) in cash from foreign organisations into Azerbaijan through “numerous transactions” during 2022 and 2023. News presenter Rufat Muradli was also sentenced in December to 30 days of arrest on charges of petty hooliganism and disobeying police orders, while he was on his way to do an interview.

The EFJ and IFJ call on the Azerbaijani authorities to release all journalists and drop the fabricated charges against them:

“We are witnessing a wave of repression aimed at intimidating all journalists operating in the country, particularly those investigating official corruption. These arrests, made on the basis of false evidence, are aimed above all at safeguarding the criminal activities of the political authorities and their accomplices”.

Azerbaijan is holding early presidential elections on 7 February 2024.