how to silence corruption: the tale of one citizen journalist and a government that does not want people to know the truth

The tale of corruption in Azerbaijan is no news to anyone familiar with the country’s history of money laundering, slush funds, and other fraudulent misconduct. From countless investigations, such as Caviar Diplomacy, Azerbaijani Laundromat and Panama Papers, and most recently OCCRP report about massive weapons deal with Congo-Brazzaville, the extent of involvement of key leadership figures of Azerbaijan in numerous financial schemes, deals, and investments, is astonishing. For years, the journalists who have been involved in these investigations have been and continue to be targeted. The most recent target is Mehman Huseynov, 28, a popular citizen journalist, and editor-in-chief of the SANCAQ, a socio-political magazine, which documents extensive corrupt practices and violations of human rights in Azerbaijan. Huseynov, shares his findings in short videos, explained in simple language, often with a touch of humor.

In 2017, shortly after President Ilham Aliyev, appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva as the First Vice President, Huseynov did a short video, asking male residents of Baku, whether they would appoint their wives as first secretaries if they were heads of companies. Huseynov was arrested the following day and later ended up serving a two-year prison term on charges of slander. Some speculated this satirical video was the real cause behind the journalist’s arrest. 

Ahead of his release from jail in 2019, the authorities attempted at keeping him behind bars, albeit unsuccessfully, and Huseynov was released. 

This is not the first time Huseynov was persecuted for his activities. He was questioned by the police countless times, threatened, intimidated, placed under a travel ban for five years, his personal documents were confiscated. The Human Rights House Foundation has documented in detail the reprisals against Huseynov in recent years. 

Realising, physical surveillance, and intimidation were not enough, Huseynov’s Sancaq TV became a target.

Hacking alert: Instagram

Due to the popularity of his channel [Sancaq TV has a large following on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube], there have been numerous attempts to break-in into Sancaq TV’s social media accounts. Huseynov was able to keep his accounts secure until he took time off from social media ahead of a medical operation after being diagnosed with cancer. The treatment and the operation were successful. It was time, for Huseynov to slowly pick up on where he left off.

Little did he know, that one of Sancaq TV’s social media accounts was compromised. “Unfortunately, government officials took advantage of my illness and in my absence hacked Sancaq TV’s Instagram account.  They sent fake messages on behalf of Instagram to my Azerbaijani mobile number and gained access,” explained Huseynov in his recollections to AIW.  

Months after Huseynov reported about the interception, it was possible to restore access to Sancaq TV’s Instagram account. 

Hacking alert: Facebook 

Since his recovery from cancer, Huseynov returned to Azerbaijan, from where he continued working on investigations into government corruption. Sancaq TV has featured some 13 separate investigations since then.

These investigations however have once again triggered perpetrators to silence Huseynov by taking over Sancaq TV’s Facebook page. While they have been unsuccessful in hacking the page, several fake Facebook pages called Sancaq TV have been created. The “owners” of these accounts are using these pages to report the original Sancaq TV Facebook page in an attempt to take it down on the grounds, that it is fake. Sancaq TV’s most recent expose explores a man named Gorxmaz Huseynov, the head of Azerbaijan Water Supply company, whose personal wealth is measured in multimillion-dollar businesses, from hospitals to tourism companies with zero accountability and transparency. 

So far, Huseynov remains defiant in his fight against corruption in Azerbaijan but so do the perpetrators behind the digital persecution campaign. Sancaq TV’s social media accounts can be accessed on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

journalist facing jail time

Anar Mammadov is editor of criminal.az – website that was blocked by the authorities in Azerbaijan in 2018. Mammadov was sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment with a two-year probation period on charges of anti-state appeals, abuse of power and official forgery in March 2019. The official cause of the criminal prosecution was the publication of news about the assassination attempt on the former head of the city of Ganja Elmar Veliyev.

On January 6, Mammadov was pressed with a set of new allegations facing arrest. The accusation comes from a woman, named Malahat Gurbanova. Mammadov wrote about Gurbanova’s legal battle with former Minister of Social Services earlier on. Gurbanova now, alleges Mammadov’s language used to describe Gurbanova in his coverage was slanderous and insulting. Mammadov refutes these claims in his defense adding, if anything, it is he who feels insulted.

Criminal.az is an independent website covering predominantly crime-related stories. The website was blocked by the authorities in 2017, along with a number of other critical and independent news websites. It later began operating under the criminalaz.com domain, which was also blocked shortly after.

*Criminalaz.com, Fia.az, bastainfo.az and topxeber.az were blocked in Azerbaijan after the prosecutor’s office claimed these news websites misinformed their audiences and shared news of provocative nature that were untrue. [Turan News Agency]

**Since May 2017, over 20 websites have been blocked in Azerbaijan, among them: Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azerbaijan Service) and its international service, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Azadliq Newspaper (independent of the Azadliq radio), Meydan TV, Turan TV and Azerbaijan Saadi (Azerbaijan Hour), OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Unit), abzas.net, obyektiv.tv, and others on the ground these outlets promoted violence, hatred, extremism, violated privacy or constituted slander.

***Websites blocked since then are blocked for slander and spreading misinformation. At some point, an editor of the blocked az24saat.org was asked to remove four articles that mentioned Ali Hasanov, now a former aide to President Ilham Aliyev. Monitortv.info, which was among the blocked websites, also received a note requesting the removal of articles mentioning Ali Hasanov on the grounds these stories contained slander and lies. [Open Democracy]

At the time of the verdict against the journalist Mammadov, several international journalism organizations, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticized the court’s decision.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Azerbaijani authorities to drop charges against Mammadov and pointing to the unfounded prosecution.

“Informing the general public about important events is what journalists do, and the authorities should support this work, and not punish reporters,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ Program Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia.

In June 2019, the Baku Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of Anar Mammadov.

Timeline

15 May 2019 – Mammadov summoned to the prosecutor’s office. This time the journalist was questioned over a story about the state oil company – SOCAR.

Meydan TV, an independent online news website covering Azerbaijan was also targeted. Although the website of Meydan.tv was blocked already in 2017, following the publication of stories about SOCAR, the website was heavily DDoSed.

9 July 2018 – Mammadov, questioned by the police. The journalist’s home was searched and his personal devices, including his laptop and phone, were seized by the police.

Mammadov was questioned after publishing reports on an attempt on the life of the mayor of Ganja, Elmar Valiyev, on 3 July.

24 July 2018 – Mammadov was summoned to the prosecutor’s office. The journalist was questioned about the publication of reports on the assassination attempt and was warned not to spread “investigative secrets”.