Police prevent coverage of protests about environmental scandal in Azerbaijan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an end to a three-month-old ban on reporting by independent journalists in Soyudlu, a village in western Azerbaijan where the police have used violence to disperse protests by residents against toxic waste from an open-cast gold mine operated by a British company.

This village in the heart of the Caucasus in the far west of Azerbaijan is now under a state of siege and is cut off from the world. The last three reporters were violently expelled on 22 June when they went to cover the protests against controversial plans by Anglo Asian Mining PLC, a British company that specialises in mining gold in Azerbaijan.

The three journalists were freelancer Elesever Muradzade, Abzasmedia news site reporter Nargiz Absalamova and Nigyar Mubariz, who freelances for the Azeri branch of the US public broadcaster Voice of America.

By evading police checkpoints, they managed to reach the heart of the village but the police arrested them as they tried to gather information about the protests in the village during the previous two days (on 20 and 21 June). The police prevented them from filming and briefly seized Absalamova’s and Mubariz’s phones. The reporters were then put in a car and expelled from the village on the grounds that they were not authorised to go there. Only reporters for the government-run state media have been able to cover the protests.

The harassment of journalists has not been limited to the village. Two plainclothes police arrested freelancer Elmaddin Shamilzadeh at his home in the capital, Baku, on 23 June, shortly after his return from reporting in Soyudlu. He was taken to a police station, where he was beaten by three police officers and pressured for several hours to delete his social media posts that showed police using extreme violence against protesters in Soyudlu. He finally deleted them in order to be released.

“The village of Soyudlu has become a news black hole. The authorities do not want anything emerging about the environmental scandal caused by the British company Anglo Asian Mining PLC and the violent crackdown on the protests. We condemn the police violence against journalists and call on the Azerbaijani government to allow independent media to access the village

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

The protests in this remote village were triggered by Anglo Asian Mining’s announcement that it was going to build a second artificial lake to store waste from the mining. Residents had already been reporting serious health problems resulting from pollution of water sources and soil from the existing artificial lake.

President Ilham Aliyev reacted on 11 July, criticising his ecology minister’s errors. But he has said nothing about the violence against journalists or the ban on access to the village.

This is not the first time that the government has isolated a problematic region. For the past nine months, purported Azerbaijani environmental activists have been blocking all traffic along the Lachin corridor, the only road linking neighbouring Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist enclave within Azerbaijan, causing a major humanitarian crisis. The problem is the same as in Soyudlu – only pro-government state media can report what is happening. Independent journalists are not allowed access.

The all-powerful police and draconian legislation impede independent journalism in Azerbaijan, which is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index

164/ 180
Score : 27.99
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