In the wake of the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Europe’s top human rights body, adopted a resolution yesterday, in order to “reiterate the importance of media freedom for democracy.” The resolution’s opening paragraph stresses that “any attack on media and journalists is an attack on democratic society,” urging the member states to “step up their […] efforts for the respect of the human rights to freedom of expression and information as well as to the protection of the life, liberty and security of those working for and with the media.”
Ironically, on the same day, a court in Azerbaijan, a Council of Europe member, convicted Seymur Haziyev, a leading columnist with the opposition paper Azadlig (Liberty) and an anchor for the Turkey-based pro-opposition television channel Azerbaijan Saati (Azerbaijan Hour), on trumped-up hooliganism charges and sentenced him to five years in prison.
In August 2014, Haziyev was assaulted near his house by a man he did not know. The man came up to him and hit Haziyev as he was waiting for a bus. He defended himself by striking the man with the glass bottle he was holding (it did not break). The police quickly appeared and arrested the journalist. He was charged with “hooliganism committed with a weapon or an object used as a weapon” and was sent to pretrial custody, awaiting investigation and trial. In past years, the Azerbaijani authorities had periodically arrested Haziyev, subjected him to ill treatment, and repeatedly warned him to stop criticizing the president.
The conviction is not surprising, as Haziyev is one of 11 independent or opposition journalists, bloggers, and social media activists arrested or convicted last year on spurious charges in apparent retaliation for critical and investigative journalism. Among them is Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s leading investigative journalist, arrested last month on spurious charges of driving a former boyfriend to attempt suicide. The authorities consistently harassed Ismayilova by repeatedly interrogating her on various pretexts and imposing a travel ban on her in October 2014 without any explanation. Meanwhile, pro-government media have targeted her with a continual, vicious, and obscene smear campaign.
Several weeks after Ismayilova’s arrest, police and prosecutors raided the Baku office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (known locally as Radio Azadliq), where Ismaiyilova had worked for several years, interrogated employees, seized equipment and files, and sealed off the premises.
By engaging in concerted efforts to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan, the authorities have long been violating freedom of media and expression commitments undertaken when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe. Azerbaijan’s international partners should make clear that such behavior is unacceptable and call for immediate release of the country’s wrongly imprisoned journalists.