Monday, March 4, 2024

Opinion | They reported the truth about corruption in Azerbaijan. Now they’re in prison.

Opinion | They reported the truth about corruption in Azerbaijan. Now they’re in prison.

In Azerbaijan, a country run by an authoritarian regime, it has taken gumption and daring for the independent journalists of Abzas Media to report. The headlines on their website list revelatory exposés about the foreign minister’s family wealth; a village relocated because of the president’s son-in-law; and companies with millions in unpaid taxes winning billions in new contracts.

This month, the journalists paid a price for their audacity. President Ilham Aliyev, who has been in office since the death of his father, Heydar, in 2003 and who has never shown tolerance for dissent or criticism, began a crackdown — hardly his first — against independent media, using spurious legal charges to silence them.

On Nov. 20, the government arrested Ulvi Hasanli, founder and director of Abzas Media, searching his apartment and raiding Abzas’s offices. The next day, it arrested Sevinc Vagifgizi, the editor in chief, a well-known investigative journalist who has exposed high-level corruption, including allegations about the president, his family and members of his cabinet. A third person who has worked with Abzas, Mahammad Kekalov, has also been detained, according to Human Rights Watch.

Then, on Nov. 25, authorities arrested Aziz Orujov, director of the independent YouTube news channel Kanal 13. He is being held in pretrial detention for three months, facing charges of unauthorized construction on land without ownership, use or lease rights. If found guilty, he could be sent to prison for up to three years. Mr. Orujov’s lawyer told the Committee to Protect Journalists that thousands of homes in Baku are built without such land rights and he was not aware of anyone else being charged. The action appears to be a crude and arbitrary effort to silence Mr. Orujov.

On Thursday, police seized another Abzas journalist, Nargiz Absalamova. A court has ordered Mr. Hasanli and Ms. Vagifgizi held in pretrial detention for four months, and Mr. Kekalov for sliaghtly less. When police searched Mr. Hasanli’s home and offices, they claim to have found 40,000 euros (about $43,000) in cash. Mr. Hasanli said the money was planted and “found” in an office hallway. The prosecutor’s office alleged the journalists conspired to smuggle large amounts of money into Azerbaijan. They could face up to eight years in prison if convicted. The journalists have denied the allegation and say they are being targeted for their work.

“Why in fact they are arrested?” asked investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova on X. She said the smuggling charge is “false” and added that the “main focus” of Abzas “is investigative reporting. They authored [a] series of investigations … exposing corruption on the highest level. The latest story was about business of family members of the State Security service chief.”

The regime’s media outlets have been railing against international donor organizations, especially the U.S. Agency for International Development,claiming they are sympathetic to Azerbaijan’s rival, Armenia, and that they are interfering in Azerbaijan’s political process by funding media and feminist organizations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Mr. Aliyev in a call on Nov. 28 and “noted recent points of concern in the relationship.”

In July, Azeri authorities jailed prominent economist Gubad Ibadoghlu, who had called out corruption and kleptocracy under Mr. Aliyev. Mr. Ibadoghlu, who was a 2015 Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, remains imprisoned.

Mr. Ibadoghlu and the journalists should be released immediately. Journalism and free expression are not crimes, as much as they discomfit the Azeri despot.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley, Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg, as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Christine Emba, Shadi Hamid, David E. Hoffman, James Hohmann, Heather Long, Mili Mitra, Eduardo Porter, Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts.

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