Alarm as Azeri Photographer Charged
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||15 June 2012|
|Citation / Document Symbol||CRS Issue 646|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Alarm as Azeri Photographer Charged, 15 June 2012, CRS Issue 646, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fe18cd62.html [accessed 30 April 2016]|
Charges brought against Azerbaijani photographer Mehman Huseynov this week have strengthened fears that now that the Eurovision Song Contest is out of the way, a crackdown on opposition voices has begun.
On June 12, Huseynov, who works for the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Security, IRFS, in Azerbaijan, was charged with offering resistance to the police at a May 21 protest which he was covering. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years.
The demonstration in the capital Baku was held just before the semi-finals for the Eurovision contest.
"The charges are absurd," Huseynov told IWPR. "I was at the protest as a reporter doing my job. I didn't offer resistance to anyone. Quite the reverse – police officers behaved very rudely to participants in the action and to the journalists who reported on it."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, an international media rights group, called for the charges to be dropped immediately.
Huseynov's brother Emin, who is head of the IRFS, said the charges were clearly sanctioned from on high, as a way of stamping out the dissent that the government had been forced to tolerate during Eurovision, when the world's media were watching.
"This was a political order. Mehman can be seen as the first person charged in the Eurovision case," he said. "We suspected from the start that after the contest, there would be repression targeting those activists and journalists who campaigned in support of democratic principles, freedom of speech and human rights. They have begun the process, and I fear that Mehman will not be the only one."
Fellow-journalists pledged to keep up the campaign for his release.
"If Mehman is convicted, he will undoubtedly be a prisoner of conscience. But he will also be called the first Eurovision prisoner," Shahvalad Chobanoglu, editor in chief of the Gundelik Azerbaijan newspaper, said. "If this happens, let no one be under any doubt – the next Eurovision final will feature photographs of Mehman and slogans calling for his release."
Chobanoglu's remarks were echoed by Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist who was the victim of a blackmail bid based on secretly-filmed footage from inside her home. Her reporting on the business interests of members of President Ilham Aliyev's family had been particularly embarrassing for the government. She ignored the threats, and a video of her and her boyfriend was posted on the internet.
"Eurovision… was a PR campaign organised by the government for the whole world. They needed to ensure nothing spoiled their party," she said. "Mehman Huseynov and other journalists showed the world the other side of the coin – the destruction of houses and the forced eviction of people from their homes."
"Of course the video and photos which Mehman took angered the authorities. It looked like he and the other journalists were hanging out the dirty washing and ruining the family's party."
Since Eurovision, around a dozen activists and journalists have been called in for questioning by the police. According to Jamil Hajiyev, head of the youth wing of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, eight members of his organisation were summoned on June 13 alone.
"They were all questioned about the protest events during Eurovision. They were all advised to be sensible and drop all these opposition issues," he said.
Among those who received a summons on June 13 was Natig Adilov, who reports for the newspaper Azadliq and is also press spokesman for the Popular Front Party.
The summons letter noted that he had taken part in a protest outside the Public Television building on May 24. "In that connection, I was to have a preliminary discussion and give a statement," he said.
"I did of course go to the police station. In my statement, I wrote that I attended the protest as a journalist and reported on what happened," said. "At the police station, they spent a long time instructing me that I should start defending the state's security and change my radical opposition views."
A spokesman for the opposition Musavat party said one of its activists was arrested on June 14 and charged with possession of drugs.
Orkhan Mansurzade, spokesman for the interior ministry, said that summons to police stations were a routine affair and that it was wrong to read too much into them.
"If someone believes this is all being done to orders from above, then that's their subjective opinion and they're profoundly mistaken," he said. "If someone is summoned to the police, it serves to protect them from [committing] illegal activities."
Such assurances did not convince international organisations like CPJ.
"We call on Azerbaijani authorities to scrap all charges against Mehman Huseynov and allow him to do his job without fear of reprisal," CPJ's Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "This relentless crackdown on the press and civil society must stop."
Alesgar Mammadli, a lawyer with the United States group IREX in Azerbaijan, said the government needed to start looking into the abuse of journalists, rather than investigating journalists themselves.
"Journalists in this country are already used to this. They are abused, beaten, threatened and blackmailed. Yet it is always journalists who are sent to prison," Idrak Abbasov, an award-winning reporter beaten up by security guards from the state oil company in April, said. The government is displaying its despotic heart, but it fails to achieve anything by it. It doesn't scare off honest journalists, and it's time the authorities recognised that."