The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Azerbaijani Journalist and Human Rights Activist Arzu Geybulla

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The Freedom Chat is a video series by Sampsonia Way featuring interviews with journalists and other media workers facing censorship and repression in their home countries. In these Q&A’s, conducted via video chat, journalists talk with Sampsonia Way about press freedom, anti-free speech legislation, and exile.

This Freedom Chat Transcript is the transcription of the audio interview, The Freedom Chat: Azerbaijani Journalist and Human Rights Activist Arzu Geybulla.. This transcript has been edited for length.

Journalist and activist Arzu Geybulla

All eyes are on Azerbaijan, currently in the midst of the Baku 2015 European Games. But perhaps more so than the fireworks that dazzled the Caspian Sea during the Opening Ceremony, the historic corruption and disturbing human rights violations of the Azerbaijani government are being placed under the spotlight. Azerbaijan is a particularly dangerous place for journalists, ranked 162 out of 180 countries by the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, a report organized by Reporters Without Borders. Those who express their dissatisfaction with the government or the conditions of human rights often face harassment, threats, and abuse, typically accompanied by arrests, charges, or imprisonment based on falsified charges. Many of those able to evade arrest have been forced into hiding or exile as the government continues to crack down on freedom of expression.

Editorial intern Lindsay Bayne spoke with Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani blogger, human rights journalist, and political analyst currently living in Turkey, a country facing similar repression in regards to freedom of speech (ranked 149 out of 180 countries by the 2015 World Press Freedom Index). In this interview, Geybulla discusses the alarming climates of press freedom and political imprisonment in Turkey and Azerbaijan, the European Games, and her expectations for the two countries’ unsteady futures.


How did you first become interested in working as a journalist and activist for human rights and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan and Turkey? Where do you find inspiration to continue your advocacy?

I started working as a journalist in 2009. I was offered a correspondence job at an Italian publication. They told me they were reading my blog and they were big fans of it, so they offered me the position and I was really excited to take it. So I’ve been writing since 2009 for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, this Italian publication, and expanding the platforms that I’ve been writing on.

In terms of inspiration, what makes me continue writing is that I can tell stories of people whose voices are not heard. I can carry on their stories and I can get their stories heard elsewhere, and get attention to their cases.

What led you to move from Azerbaijan to Turkey? In what ways has your experience of living in these two countries changed your perspective concerning freedom of speech?

Moving to Turkey was a personal decision. I was engaged to a Turk, and we were going to live in Istanbul. For me, being in Turkey allowed me to look at Azerbaijan from the outside. Living in Turkey, I’ve been seeing the country from the outside because, at the end of the day, I’m still an expat. I’m still a foreigner. I can look at things more objectively in a way.

I came to Turkey in 2001, actually for the first time. I was doing my undergraduate here. Back then, Turkey was this beacon of hope for countries like Azerbaijan. There was a lot more room to maneuver politically, societies were a lot more advanced than Azerbaijan, and they were a lot more vocal, and they could always get projects done and be really committed to their cause. And it’s the same for human rights as well. There was such a big difference between the two countries in terms of the freedoms produced. But gradually, things started to change, and now I feel like Turkey is a lot closer to Azerbaijan in terms of human rights violations and in terms of crackdowns.

Could you describe the current states of the Internet and media in Azerbaijan? What effects do the limited Internet access and restricted media coverage of events in Azerbaijan have on its citizens?

So you kind of have to keep the Internet separate from media in Azerbaijan because the Internet is the only space that the government hasn’t really touched with its policies. And this is one of their main arguments—that Internet is so free in Azerbaijan, and people are free to use it the way they want. And in a way they’re right because Internet is still free in Azerbaijan, and it has become basically the only platform where people can actually express themselves. They can share their opinions, and they can discuss things, and they can criticize the government. Whereas in the state of media this is no longer possible. There are no more newspapers that are [still] printed that are more or less objective journalism or opposition journalism. They all operate online, which again links it to this Internet presence and online freedom that still exists in Azerbaijan.

Whereas you can’t say the same about the media and freedom of expression in Azerbaijan because the government’s attitude towards print journalists and print media is very much [that] they see them as enemies. Journalists who write about the president, journalists who write about corruption, journalists who write about everything that’s wrong with the country are perceived as enemies and often they are persecuted, often they’re intimidated. In worst case scenarios, we’ve had journalists who have been murdered, and their assailants are still out there. No one knows where they are and no one is really making an effort to follow up on their cases.

But having said that the Internet is free, I would also like to mention how the government goes after the activists, basically online activists. There is a theory that there is a department within the presidential apparatus that keeps track of all the Facebook activity, and they pick the online activists who are very much outspoken and then they go after them. But when they go after them, they do not arrest them, for example, for their online activism. This is never the case. When they arrest an activist, they accuse them of hooliganism, or they accuse them of drug charges, or they accuse them of illegal arms possession. Anything but political activism. And so although the Internet remains to be free space, the people use it with caution because they’re very much aware of the consequences.

What led to the creation of your blog, Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines? How did you first become interested in blogging, as opposed to reporting, about the current state of human rights and freedom of expression in Turkey and Azerbaijan?

In 2007, I started working for a think tank based in Istanbul. And we were doing research on gender development in Azerbaijan. So I would travel extensively into the country and I would spend weeks, sometimes months, doing research, and then coming back to Istanbul, writing up the interviews and going over the material I’d collected. In the meantime, because I’d been traveling to Azerbaijan and had been with so many interesting people, a friend of mine from Azerbaijan urged me to start blogging and really share the stories I’d been seeing and hearing.

Originally I had no idea really how to keep it so it would be readable so people would start coming to it as a source of information. For about half a year, I posted random stories that I felt were really interesting to me, and then gradually it became popular. Basically, there was a time when my blog stopped being just a blog, like a LiveJournal. It turned into being more of a tool for my political expression. I posted a story about a closure of a website platform in Azerbaijan. I called [out] people of Azerbaijan that weren’t really standing up for the crackdown, and someone ended up copying the text of the blog post and sending it around the embassy list and some of the international organizations’ mailing lists. And I got a phone call from a friend—the same friend who actually urged me to start this blog—saying, “you won’t believe it, someone printed this out and they’re distributing it at a party and everyone’s reading your blog.” And this is how the blog started to get on the reading list of not only embassies but also international organizations, and not only within the country but also outside of the country.

Having this exposure and realizing how important this could be, that was the decision-making point in my blogging career that I should keep the blog and I should continue writing, which is why I write the same blog that I started seven years ago. And I continue updating it as much as I can. And I still blog both in Azerbaijan and now on Turkey, having moved here. I mostly write on Azerbaijan however, but Turkey has been definitely one of the topics that I return to quite often on the blog.

How have social media platforms changed the realm of press and media in Azerbaijan and Turkey?

[Social media] has certainly created more alternative spaces for journalists. In 2009, when the famous case of the Donkey Bloggers made it into the international headlines. It was sort of the very important example to show that YouTube could be a platform to make videos mocking the government or decisions made by the government. And this is basically what happened to the Donkey Bloggers. They made a video mocking the government for buying two donkeys that were $40,000 each, and they put on a comedy show [with] a person who was wearing a donkey mask giving a press conference and answering questions. They were silly questions about, you know, “If you were a donkey, where would you like to be born again?” And the donkey would say, “Of course, I would like to be born in Azerbaijan because Azerbaijan is a perfect place for donkeys.” And things like that. So these kinds of projects [yielded] ideas for how social platforms could be utilized. And gradually, they also showed themselves in youth organizing and youth activism.

In 2011, there was an attempt to organize something similar to an Arab Spring on Facebook when a group of people organized where people stayed, created a Facebook page, and then obviously got punished for this. Of the seven people who were on the Facebook group page, one was in Azerbaijan and he was arrested and he was charged for two years in prison. [And then there was] one of the second attempts of the 2013 protests against the death of the conscripts. And this was a really important protest. In a very long time in Azerbaijan’s history, especially activist history, this was the first time when people had a cause to unite around.

I believe that had it had not been for these campaigns, had it not been for these online discussions on Facebook calling on the authorities to take on responsibility, calling on the authorities to take specific actions, none of those actions that actually did follow, that the government did take responsibility for, would have happened.

It’s the same in Turkey. When the Gezi protests shook the country two years ago, the importance that social media platforms played was immense. When the television channels were not showing the Taksim Square, it was all discussed on social media. Twitter exploded. When the government attempted to shut down the access to Twitter and YouTube, people started using bypass proxies to access it. The usage of these platforms actually doubled within days of the government’s attempt to block the access. And it continues to be this way with Facebook and Twitter. It’s incredible to see how much social media has become an important tool in the hands of activists in organizing or calling for action or getting the government to do something about what’s happening in the country.

What future changes to you hope or expect to see in terms of activism in Azerbaijan and Turkey?

For Azerbaijan, in terms of political changes, I hope that the government changes, [that] the leadership changes. Because it’s not happening, what I would like to see is more activism on behalf of Azerbaijani people to not keep quiet, and to continue expressing themselves and to not be afraid because if they’re many voices and if they’re together, it can really have an impact on the authorities. And I would wish the same for Turkey. Even though in Turkey I feel like the activism community is a lot more powerful and a lot more vocal, I still think that it’s very important that people as well stay committed and united when it comes to their activism, both online and offline.

What are your thoughts on Baku’s hosting of the European Games, particularly in light of the events surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012?

The European Games are a big, big trouble on many fronts, not just human rights and freedom of expression. The European Games are hosted in a country where billions that are being spent and invested into the European Games could be spent on improving the infrastructure, on building schools, on sending more kids abroad for education. So this is my bigger vision of European Games and how unnecessary it is, really. This is not even an Olympic Game. These are the Games that were catered for President Aliyev‘s will, just because he wanted to host something in Azerbaijan. We did not need to host these European Games. Because they’ve never happened—we’re the first ones to host them.

It’s been incredible to see how little government cares about its image when it comes to human rights and political prisoners. Just in the past year and a half, the government has jailed pretty much every single well-known, respected activist, human rights defender, human rights activist, journalist, just because they’re afraid that these individuals would have taken an active part in advocating for democracy in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the European Games. The authorities made a very strategic decision when they decided that they were going to host the European Games—they knew that there’s a list of people that need to be silenced. And the way they could be silenced was by arresting them. And this is what they did. If you follow Azerbaijan closely, you would know that all the crimes that they’re accusing these people of are the crimes that they themselves [are] committing on [a] daily basis. They are evading taxes, they are abusing power, they are engaged in illegal entrepreneurship. So I think even though [the European Games] are a good platform to use to shed light on what’s happening in the country, it is very hard to see the consequences. It’s really hard to say, and if anything they should have never hosted these games. But unfortunately, they are.

Could you tell us about your experiences of harassment and threats as a result of your work? Have they influenced your plans in moving forward with your advocacy?

I’ve been facing harassment pretty much since I started blogging, and pretty much since the blog became popular. So around 2009 I would say. And the experience back then was very mild if I compare [it] to the harassment that I’m facing now. I had emails from users that were reading the blog accusing me of being an agent of the West and selling out my country. But it never really touched me in a way that would affect my writing or make me question my decision in whether I should actually stop and just move on. I continued writing, and the harassment and the ways of harassment changed. From email it went onto Facebook, went onto Twitter, and I was able to discover these wonderful things called trolls, who would just shower me with the very same messages of, “you were a traitor,” “you are a whore,” or “you don’t deserve to be an Azerbaijani,” or, more recently, and what happened in 2014, death threats. And this was the peak of [the] harassment that I had experienced in my work.

The first death threat actually came via Facebook. Then people started discussing in a very open manner how they would like me seen killed. Whether I would be raped and then killed, whether I would be hanged by my legs and then killed, or whether I would be murdered in the streets of Istanbul, because this is what one of the TV anchors suggested during one of his shows when he was making yet another fake story about me—defaming not only me, but also my family. And calling on some delusional people to even consider the idea that, “Oh, well what if someone kills her? Yay!” But again, it never really stops me from writing. As soon as I started getting these [death threats], I started reposting them. I would take screen shots, and I would try to make this all visible online.

At some point, I remember I read something online. It was so terrible that I just couldn’t stop crying, and that was the first time that it affected me so much that these people who don’t know me would just write these terrible things about me. And then I decided okay, that’s enough. I’m going to stop reading whatever is written, I’m not going to pay attention, and I’m just going to continue doing what I normally do, which is continue writing and advocating for more democracy and human rights, both in Azerbaijan and Turkey. In a way, this served as an example and as a story, because this is what I intend to write about when I start writing my book. So, haters gonna hate, trolls are gonna troll. I have a friend that once said, “Feed them until they choke on it.” So I have no plans and no intentions of stopping just because a few hundred or maybe a thousand people decided to spam me with their nasty messages.

Looking to the future, what do you believe is the best way to raise awareness of the state of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan and in Turkey?

That’s a very tough question. To me, one of the best ways is to promote it as much as possible, and I think everyone should realize the power of their voice. I think that’s the most important thing. Because when I think of Azerbaijan, I think people don’t express themselves because they don’t understand the importance of freedom of expression and how it can have an impact on the country’s future. And I think this is the groundwork of achieving freedom of expression in both countries. There is less fear in Turkey than there is in Azerbaijan, partially because in Turkey, the activism is seen as more developed and it’s a lot more vibrant, whereas in Azerbaijan it rests within those boundaries of fear. This is I think the importance of freedom of expression; that people have this understanding that they can, and that they should [express themselves], and that the government should actually listen. And I really wish that a lot more people realized the power that rests within them, rather than just hopelessly go and vote and just hope that someone will take the responsibility or take action on their behalf.

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