I read with some pleasure this afternoon news that a former VOA colleague has been awarded a top prize for her work.
Khadija Ismayilova, 38, spent time as a reporter for the VOA’s Azerbaijan language service a few years ago, where I got to know her as a a cheerful but fearless reporter, who often expressed strong opinions about governance and transparency in her native Azerbaijan.
In 2008, she returned to Baku, where she served for two years as chief of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani service, Radio Azadliq.
As RePRESSed earlier reported, Ismayilova was arrested on December 5, 2014, on charges that she ‘incited’ a colleague to attempt suicide. She has been held ever since — even after that colleague withdrew his complaint.
On February 13, an Azeri court charged Ismayilova with embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of power. If convicted she could face a dozen years in prison.
On February 24, in a separate case, a Baku court convicted Ismayilova on charges of libel and criminal defamation for posting a scanned document on her Facebook page that she said was a contract used by the Ministry of National Security to hire an informer to infiltrate the political opposition. She faces up to three years in prison on those charges.
Press freedom groups accuse the government of Azerbaijan to silence her as part of a general crackdown on dissent.
This week, the PEN American Center, a New-York-based advocacy group that works to advance literature, defend free speech and foster international literary fellowship, awarded Ismayilova its 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Established in 1987, the award has been granted to more than 40 writers from around the world, the majority of whom were prison at the time they were honored.
“The high-profile case of award-winning Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Khadija Ismayilova demonstrates the lengths to which the Azeri government will go to silence its critics.” – Open Letter to Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee President, on Khadija Ismayilova’s Imprisonment, April 15, 2015
Azerbaijan is slated to host the first-ever European Games in June of this year. A group of prominent journalists this week joined PEN in writing an open letter to International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, calling on the IOC to put pressure on Azerbaijan’s government to release Ismayilova and drop the charges against her before the games in Baku begin on June 12.
“The environment in Azerbaijan has become increasingly repressive for journalists,” the letter reads. “Media are strictly controlled by the government, leaving few independent sources of news and information. At least 26 writers are currently detained, on trial, or jailed in Azerbaijan, and others are subject to harassment, threats, and violence.”
The letter calls on the Azeri government to take concrete steps toward achieving greater respect for press freedom, including the release of other journalists currently in jail.
“We ask you to reach out to President [Ilham] Aliyev and strongly urge him to take immediate action to ensure that the spirit of the Olympic Charter is upheld and that the rights of Khadjia Ismayilova and her fellow journalists are vindicated,” the letter says.
The signers include prominent journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and leading sports media. Click here to read the letter in its entirety.