The Freedom Chat Transcripts: An Interview with Azerbaijani Journalist Idrak Abbasov
Idrak Abbasov, one of Azerbaijan’s leading journalists, has spent decades investigating the country’s corrupt practices even in the face of extreme opposition. In 2012, he won the Index on Censorship Guardian journalism award in recognition of his work for independent Azerbaijani publications. Shortly after his award, he was brutally attacked by police and security personnel from the state energy company while filming the demolition of houses on the outskirts of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Idrak now lives in Norway, where he continues to report on corruption and advocate for free media and the better treatment of journalists in Azerbaijan.
Sampsonia Way interviewed Mr. Abbasov via email about Azerbaijan’s illusions of press freedom and how the European Games, which are being held in Baku from June 12-28, 2015, are a façade disguising a corrupt regime.
When did you first decide to become a journalist? How have conditions for journalists in Azerbaijan changed since you began?
Azerbaijan was occupied by Russia for about 300 years, until 1918. On May 28, 1918, Azerbaijan became the first democratic country in the Islamic world, but on April 28, 1920, Soviet Russia occupied Azerbaijan. However, in 1991 – after 70 years of soviet governance – Azerbaijan became independent.
Russia didn’t want to lose its influence in the Caucasus region, so it created Abkhazian and Ossetian conflicts in Georgia, and Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan. The beginning of the 1990s was a difficult time. There was a massive inflation, an ongoing war; about one million Azerbaijanis became refugees, and former KGB General Heydar Aliyev came to power. He got rid of all armed opposition, and Azerbaijan lost six more towns and many villages. Since May 14, 1994, armistice has been maintained in Karabakh.
I moved to Baku from a small village in the Talysh region of Azerbaijan to attend university in 1993. We had a big family and didn’t have financial means to pay for my expenses, so I found a job as a newspaper courier and entered the world of information.
From a journalist’s standpoint those were fascinating years. There were significant food shortages and it was hard for people to buy bread. Every day I had to waste several hours waiting in lines for groceries. In February of 1995, I stayed in line overnight to buy a loaf of bread and wrote a short feature story about an elderly woman who stood in line with me. That feature story was published by a small newspaper, but a lot of people liked it and different newspapers made me job offers. I was already a print distribution department manager in a company and had a very decent salary, but, back then, journalism was a very appealing, prestigious field. So, I became a journalist.
At that time there was an official censorship, which was lifted only in 1998. Nevertheless, there were many free newspapers, radio stations and TV channels, and the irony is that the media suppression began after the lifting of censorship. Arrests, beatings, and kidnappings of journalists started to take place, as well as attacks on editorial offices. The Sara TV channel and Sara radio station, the most well-known outlets, were shut down, followed by ABA TV channel. Many newspapers lost their advertising, and the government started taking down newspaper kiosks. However, Heydar Aliyev didn’t eliminate free media completely; there were still small islands of freedom of speech remaining.
In 2003, Heydar’s son, Ilham Aliyev, became president, and he wasn’t joking around. He started destroying democracy, freedom of expression, and free media. He began with taking over all of the TV channels and radio stations. To this day, all the Azerbaijani TV and radio companies work only for Ilham Aliyev, and they can’t broadcast anything without an official permission. Each TV channel has specific unofficial censors.
Later, Ilham Aliyev started eliminating opposition. All opposition parties were kicked out of their headquarters, and many politicians and activists were arrested. Then the government targeted newspapers. If a newspaper didn’t agree to work for Aliyev, that newspaper wasn’t allowed to advertise (the primary income source for newspapers). In 2005, Elmar Huseynov, the chief editor of Monitor, the most popular magazine in Azerbaijan, was killed. It was a signal to all the journalists. Almost everybody started developing self-censorship. Although many journalists, including me, were repeatedly arrested, beaten, kidnapped, and tortured, we continued our work.
What is the motivation for the Azerbaijani government blocking journalists’ freedom of press? What do they gain from pretending to have freedom of press, while actually restricting it?
As you know, Azerbaijan is a rich country. It has almost everything from black caviar to gold; it also has a lot of oil and natural gas. However, the Azerbaijani government is corrupt and all of its business and oil windfall flow are under direct control of the president’s family. You have probably read Khadijah Ismayilova‘s investigation on Ilham Aliyev’s family’s offshore companies. They don’t want the poor population to know the truth. The government says that we have over a million refugees, all the countries around us want to destroy us, journalists and human rights advocates like me are traitors, and we are adding grist to the Armenian mill, we are separatists, Islamophobes, etc.
Imagine: the retirement benefits for senior citizens are only $130-150 a month, people are very poor, they’re no adequate healthcare and education systems, and there’s omnipresent corruption. Many people even buy bread on trust, and that’s just terrible. And now the country will be covering rich Europeans’ expenses while the citizens themselves live in poverty. The government is promoting itself thanks to the obedient Azerbaijani “media.” The funniest part of it is that European Games are supposedly going to contribute to the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh. To the rest of the world, the Azerbaijani government pretends that there’s free media and that they are normal, civilized people.
The only thing that scares Azerbaijani authorities is the fate of their children: the children of almost all high-level public officials live in Europe or America. They have businesses in those countries. For instance, even Ilham Aliyev’s daughter, Leyla Aliyeva, gave birth to her children in America. That’s why they want to look like normal people.
What are the biggest obstacles your colleagues in Azerbaijan currently face? How do they overcome those obstacles?
There are still several small newspapers on the verge of bankruptcy. They can be considered more or less free. The journalists working in those newspapers can’t publish any serious investigations on corruption: for instance, writing an article against European Games is like a suicide for journalists themselves. That’s why those journalists who are still in Azerbaijan simply don’t cover serious issues.
How will hosting the European Games influence the government’s treatment of journalists? Do you think it will be a repeat of Eurovision in 2012?
During Eurovision in 2012, Azerbaijan still had free newspapers, the “Svoboda” radio station office, many journalists (those that are now under arrest or had to leave the country like I did), and free NGOs. For instance, we held a “Sing for Democracy” campaign of which our friend Rasul Djafarov was in charge. (He is in prison now, sentenced for six and a half years.) In preparation for Eurovision 2012, the government took down many buildings and beautified the downtown of Baku just so that foreigners thought that Azerbaijan was such a developed country. To do this, they kicked people out of their homes and did not pay them adequate compensation. Nowadays there are hardly any free media and journalists left in the country; the government destroyed all.
What is the responsibility of the European Olympic officials to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for violations against press freedom? Do you believe that countries should refuse to participate in this year’s games, since they will be hosted in Azerbaijan?
It’s very sad that European Olympic officials aren’t interested in human rights and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, and there’s a clear explanation for that. The Azerbaijan government will be covering European athletes’ expenses and all sports delegations’ expenses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the government bribed European Olympic officials.
They know who Ilham Aliyev is and what he has done with democracy and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. They shouldn’t forget that their participation in European Games is a direct support of the authoritarian regime. They shouldn’t forget that Ilham Aliyev practically proclaimed himself president for the third time not only through falsified elections but also by violating the constitution. He didn’t have the right to run for a third term. Although he changed the constitution, no laws, including the constitution, have retroactive effects. Countries that respect democratic values shouldn’t take part in yet another corrupt project of Aliyev’s.
How did your attack in 2012 and the worldwide attention it received influence the way you were treated in Azerbaijan? What are citizens’ attitudes toward journalists?
If it hadn’t been for such a strong support I would probably be in prison today. After the attack on me, the authorities wanted to put me in prison. Allegedly, I organized a mass protest. I remember distinctly that Hillary Clinton was visiting Baku then. During her meeting with Aliyev, she brought up my situation. After that, I remained free and a criminal case was initiated on the attack on me, but the authorities didn’t convict anybody anyway.
Responding to the second part of your question, I want to say that many people don’t believe journalists anymore because they watch non-independent TV and read non-independent press. They watch and read about Azerbaijan being the most developed country in the world where people are well-off, live in safety, and everything is great. However, people don’t live like TV shows them they do, so they think that journalists are liars. But people believe and trust the honest journalists.
What finally made you decide to leave Azerbaijan, and what would have to change for you to return?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the reasons why I had to leave the country yet, but the authorities didn’t convict anybody regarding the attack on me in 2012. I have already petitioned European Court of Justice. The authorities found out about it and tried to bribe me with a large sum of money so that I would withdraw my complaint. I turned it down, and the authorities don’t like or forgive such behavior.
Also, in 2006, my friend Emin Huseynov (he has been hiding in the Swiss embassy in Baku for 10 months) and I created the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) because there weren’t any free NGOs to protect journalists’ rights in Azerbaijan. I also started working on protecting the rights of my colleagues. The government shut our office down on August 6th, 2014 and seized all the property.
At that time I was also an editor for Rasul Jafarov’s projects. He was also arrested then. After the shutdown of IRFS, I was informed that on August 19th I would be arrested as well, so I abandoned my house, my car, all my possessions and, without saying anything to anybody, left the country with my family. I believe I won’t be able to come back home unless the regime changes. I’m currently in Norway working on an ICORN project.
How have your methods of reporting changed since you left Azerbaijan? How do you receive information, and where/how do you share report it?
I worked as a journalist for an Azerbaijani daily newspaper called Bizim YOL, and I was also a correspondent covering Azerbaijan and Turkey for the Russian news website Regnum.ru, and also periodically wrote articles for IWPR. I left the country last August and continued working for Regnum.ru until November, but my expenses exceeded my earnings and I stopped working for them. After that, I started working for a TV program called Azerbaycan Saatı. This program airs Saturdays and Sundays for one hour at 9pm on Can Erzincan, the Turkish TV channel. People in Azerbaijan watch the program through satellite and it‘s very popular there.
I get information through phone calls, Skype and by email. Also, people send me their videos. We have made a simple office in the apartment where I live. My wife, Egana Abassova, and I prepare our material there. We don’t have a decent computer for video editing and we work for free, but we work with what we have and manage to make ends meet. The most important thing for us, at this time, is not quality and making money, but telling stories about the problems of our motherland!
How effective do you feel the recent meeting between the EU and Azerbaijan will be in putting an end to the crackdown on journalists, and getting imprisoned journalists like Khadija Ismayilova released?
If there aren’t any specific sanctions against Azerbaijani government, nothing will change. However, Western countries can come up with something like the Magnitsky Act, but for Azerbaijan. It would be far more effective than some statement.
What would meaningful change look like to achieve press freedom in Azerbaijan?
If there isn’t any significant pressure on Azerbaijani authorities and their PR in Western countries, nothing will change, and the situation will get worse and worse. For instance, I urge my colleagues in Europe and USA to start investigations on the public officials and policymakers of their countries who visit Baku frequently and promote Azerbaijani government. They will definitely find out about some major corruption going on. My colleagues should conduct an investigation on the activity of the Azerbaijani highest-level public officials’ children in their countries and they will reveal lots of problems and corruption.
What compels you to keep reporting, even in the face of brutality and enormous corruption?
In countries like Azerbaijan, a journalist isn’t just a person reporting news, but also an ombudsman, a human rights activist, a lawyer and the last hope for the people who have failed to find justice anywhere. Many believe us, and believe that we will cover their problems. That’s why I can’t leave those who have no hope except for me.