On 18 March, at the Barbican Centre in London, Index on Censorship hosted its annual Freedom of Expression Awards. Journalists, activists, and artists from Saudi Arabia, Angola, Morocco, Kenya, and Hungary accepted well-deserved awards in recognition of their courage and innovation in advocating free expression in difficult climates.
The absence of any journalists or activists from Azerbaijan was notable, as there have been winners from Azerbaijan three out of the past five years. But that was not because no one had been nominated. Quite the contrary; in fact, there were so many deserving individuals from Azerbaijan that the judges had decided to create a special award to honor them all.
In the middle of the ceremony, Sage Director David McCune presented a special award to all of the persecuted writers, journalists, and activists of Azerbaijan, in recognition of their courage in fighting for free expression and democracy in increasingly hostile conditions. Azerbaijan, he noted, presented itself as a democracy; President Aliyev has stated that fundamental freedoms are respected, and the country has been allowed to chair the Council of Europe and host the upcoming inaugural European Games. But the situation on the ground was a far different reality.
McCune specifically mentioned human rights defenders Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli, Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, Emin Huseynov, and Intigam Aliyev, as well as journalists Seymur Hezi and Khadija Ismayilova, who have all been jailed or forced into hiding, as well as Azadliq newspaper, which faces bankruptcy. Photos of these individuals and their names were displayed on the large screen in the auditorium. There were few dry eyes in the room.
McCune’s remarks were followed by a video message from exiled Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov, who accepted the award on behalf of his colleagues and spoke of the government’s control of the media and the broader lack of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. “Freedom of speech has been completely stifled. Our colleagues have been murdered…No one has been called to account. Many journalists have been brutally and repeatedly beaten, and no one has been punished. This is Azerbaijan. This is the horrific way the country is being ruled,” he said.
Abbasov won an Index on Censorship award for journalism in 2012. Just weeks later, he was brutally beaten by employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan while filming them demolishing homes in his village. No one was ever held to account, and Abbasov himself was later blamed for the attack. In the years since, Abbasov and his family have faced continuous harassment and threats, and were finally forced to flee the country for safety.
Other former Index on Censorship award winners have also faced extensive persecution from the Azerbaijani authorities. Former director of the Media Rights Institute Rashid Hajili won the Index on Censorship advocacy award in 2010. Last year, following tremendous pressure in connection with a criminal investigation into a large group of NGOs, Hajili announced the closure of the Media Rights Institute, which has served as a serious blow to freedom of expression in the country.
Azadliq newspaper won the Index on Censorship journalism award in 2014, but has continued to experience serious pressure through the arrests of its journalists and financial difficulties caused by excessive defamation lawsuits, as well as state control or influence over printing facilities, distribution networks, and the advertising market. Azadliq was forced to temporarily suspend publication in 2014, and its future remains uncertain to this day.
While recognition of the courageous work journalists and free expression advocates carry out in Azerbaijan is important, it is clear that awards such as the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards are not enough. What is needed is concrete support for these persecuted individuals and groups, and tangible action from the international community to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its human rights obligations – starting with the release of the jailed journalists, human rights defenders, and many other political prisoners in the country.