Journalists jailed instead of corrupt elites in Azerbaijan

Update: On 30 November 2023, a further journalist from AbzasMedia, Nargiz Absalamova, was arrested in Baku.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of the director, director’s assistant and editor of AbzasMedia, one of the few independent news sites still based in Baku, who are being held on a smuggling charge. Their arrests constitute unacceptable harassment, says RSF, alerting the international community to the decline in press freedom in Azerbaijan.

Director Ulvi Hasanli, director’s assistant Mahammad Kekalov and editor Sevinj Vagifqizi have been placed in four months’ pre-trial detention on a charge of “smuggling foreign currency,” which carries a possible eight-year prison sentence.

The police claim to have found 40,000 euros in cash during a five-hour search on 20 November at the headquarters of AbzasMedia, which publishes investigative reporting about corruption within the Azerbaijani elites.

AbzasMedia accuses the police of planting the money in order to justify the arrests. During a hearing on 21 November that resulted in the director and editor being place under formal investigation, no one was allowed into the courtroom and the police prevented reporters from filming the two detained journalists.

“Public order is inverted in Azerbaijan. Journalists are thrown in prison instead of the corrupt elites whose misdeeds they reveal. Those in authority seem to regard President Ilham Aliyev’s new oppressive media law as inadequate to stifle the few independent media outlets remaining in the country. RSF draws the international community’s attention to the decline in the situation and calls for the release of Ulvi Hasanli, Sevinj Vagifqizi and Mahammad Kekalov.

Jeanne Cavelier
Head of RSF’s Eastern European and Central Asia desk

Questioned about corruption investigations

The three journalists were arrested in quick succession. Hasanli was on his way to the airport in Baku, the capital, on 20 November, when he was intercepted by masked men, beaten and questioned about AbzasMedia's investigations into corruption, the website's editorial staff said. 

Vagifqizi, who was the first person to publicly report his disappearance, was arrested the next day, 21 November, on her return to Azerbaijan, and was assaulted during interrogation, her colleagues say.

Kekalov was arrested at his home by plainclothes police officers on 20 November, and was held in an unknown location for three days before finally being able to meet the lawyer chosen by his parents. He declined the lawyer’s services, probably under pressure, his friends say.

The intimidation and obstruction has continued. Two journalists who collaborate with AbzasMedia, Sakhilya Aslanova and Nargiz Absalamovan, were questioned “as witnesses” for more than three hours on 23 November. The police meanwhile changed the locks to the offices at AbzasMedia, preventing the journalists from accessing them.

 At the same time, the authorities have been orchestrating smear campaigns against other independent journalists. And shortly after the AbzasMedia arrests, RSF was the target of absurd, mendacious rumours that were published by the pro-government news agency and spread by other propaganda media. 

The press freedom situation is worsening steadily in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index. The media law that took effect in February 2022 violates both the constitution and international treaties ratified by Baku, and aims to stifle the country’s last independent news sites.

164/ 180
Score : 27.99
Published on
Updated on 24.11.2023