On March 7, 2012, Khadija Ismayilova received a letter stuffed with intimate photographs of her at home, and a note that read: Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.
But Ismayilova has built her career on uncovering corruption at the highest levels of government in authoritarian Azerbaijan and doesn’t just behave to please anonymous notewriters. One week later, a sex tape of Ismayilova and her boyfriend mysteriously leaked onto the Internet.
Turns out someone had broken into Ismayilova’s apartment to plant a hidden camera and wiretap. No one knows who ordered the blackmail, but Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev –already named a “Predator of Press Freedom” by journalists’ advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RWB)– is a likely culprit.
Other Azeri journalists have stopped writing, or committed suicide in the face of sexual blackmail in this conservative Muslim country. But Ismayilova went public. She told everyone. So we took the opportunity to ask what it’s like to talk about yourself and those in power in a country that ranks a grim 160th place out of 180 countries in the RWB Press Freedom Index:
“It’s the government. My management asked me to move to Prague after the blackmail, but I refused. That’s what the government in Azerbaijan wants. I’m not bound to this place, but I know that I am needed here.
“What I have to say is not controversial- it is simply fact. It’s not just that I claim the government is doing this or that; I prove it. And when you bring a paper trail with you to be fact-checked, it is very difficult for publishers to refuse your story. All the same, many publishers are afraid. You don’t see many investigative reports in mainstream media here, and my radio station (US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) is banned from local FM and AM frequencies.
“There is not a single independent broadcaster in Azerbaijan. None of the TV or radio channels are independent. It’s a fact. There are a couple of private ones, but those have people who monitor the news before it goes on the air. Yeah, those are appointees of the presidential administration.
“Only one television channel covered my blackmail. They reported a story about the blackmailing of journalists and said that there had been a sex video and a journalist being blackmailed, but always failed to mention what the journalist was trying to report on. So they only got half of the story. The main part of the story, the reason for my blackmail, was a report on the President’s corrupt family businesses.
“But crushing mainstream media doesn’t matter. People know things, anyway- social media is quite widely followed in Azerbaijan. Things are so easy now. I can put news on my Facebook page and people in Azerbaijan can read it, pick it up and share it. Journalists are not dependent on publishers now, especially in countries like Azerbaijan.”
UPDATE: In December 2014, Khadija Ismayilova was taken to jail for two months of "pre-trial detention" for allegedly causing a man to attempt suicide. The day before she was charged, Ramiz Mehdiyev, Chief of Staff to Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, had issued a 60-page statement accusing her of "defiance" and of a "destructive attitude toward well-known members of the Azerbaijani community."
Illustration: Fanqiao Wang