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

anews.az editor sentenced to three and a half years [updated March 20]

[Updated] According to Azadliq Radio, Gambarov’s sentence was commuted on March 19 replacing the original sentence of 3.5 years with 1 year and 2 months of restricted freedom taking into account that Gambarov already served five months behind bars. The journalist will have to be home from 11 pm until 7 am. The charges were replaced from Article 221.3 (hooliganism committed with the use of a weapon or subjects)  of the Criminal Code to Article 221.2.2 (hooliganism committed with resistance to representative of the authority).  

February 28, regional editor for online news site anews.az Zaur Gambarov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison on alleged hooliganism charges reports Meydan TV. 

Gambarov is accused of throwing a chair at the Deputy Director of the State Social Protection Fund Gadabay Branch and beating his driver. Editor’s family members claim, the allegations are bogus and that Gambarov himself was beaten and later framed. 

“If the hearing was just, the court could have demanded the camera footage but they chose not to,” said Gambarov’s brother in an interview with Meydan TV. 

Gambarov in his defense said the reason for his arrest and sentence were his stories about corruption among government employees in Gadabay. Specifically, Gambarov points to a report he wrote about a relative of the head of the Gadabay’s City Administration which, according to Gambarov was the final straw that triggered the arrest. According to that story, the State Social Protection Fund employed a relative of the head of the Gadabay City Administration but that the relative never went to work at the Fund. 

In recent months, at least two website editors and journalists were sentenced to lengthy jail times – Polad Aslanov, and Afgan Sadigov. Both journalists have since been on hunger strike.