OCCRP Reporter Donates Journalism Prize to Imprisoned Azerbaijani Editor
Winners of the fifth Global Shining Light Award, including Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project regional coordinator Khadija Ismayilova, have donated their US $1,000 prize money to imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli.
Azerbaijani authorities arrested Zeynalli, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Azerbaijani Khural newspaper in October 2011. Zeynalli, a staunch critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, was accused of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion and was sentenced to nine years in prison after a closed trial.
According to the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Zeynalli’s paper was “one of a handful of independent media voices” in Azerbaijan, a country located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia which, out of 179 ranked countries, came in 156th place in Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index.
Ismayilova said that she and her fellow award winners wanted to show they stand behind Zeynalli, “one of the bravest journalists in Azerbaijan,” who authorities tried to silence “not only by arresting him but by discrediting him.”
“That was the most outrageous part of the attack,” she said.
Avaz Zeynalli’s Case
Zeynalli, who is still imprisoned, faced “an array of retaliatory measures from the authorities” even before the conviction, reports Amnesty International.
Authorities blocked his paper from being printed and confiscated its property. When those efforts failed to silence the journalist, authorities indicted and then jailed Zeynalli—a move that was denounced by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), newspapers, and human rights advocates.
Azerbaijani police accused Zeynalli of attempting to blackmail a former member of parliament, Gular Ahmadova.
Ahmadova, who herself was charged in a February 2013 corruption scandal, did not attend the trial. According to ARTICLE 19, a London-based human rights NGO, no evidence was provided in court to support her claims against Zeynalli.
From start to finish, critics say, the criminal trial process itself was deeply flawed. Amnesty International reports that Zeynalli was detained by plainclothes officers who offered no explanation for the arrest. Alleged recordings of him soliciting bribes from Ahmadova were never presented, and eyewitnesses with discredited stories were simply replaced with new witnesses in court.
Agnes Callamard, the executive director of ARTICLE 19 said, “It is of utmost concern that the government throws its critics in jail and the world remains quiet on the subject.”
Reporters without Borders has called for the immediate release of Zeynalli, saying that authorities are using “the most diverse pretexts to put halt Khural’s activities and to punish Avaz Zeynalli for his scathing criticism of the president.”
Recognizing Brave Journalism
The Global Shining Light Award, which recognizes investigative reporting done under “threat, duress, or in the direst of conditions” in developing or transitioning countries, was awarded to Ismayilova alongside fellow Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Nushabe Fatullayeva and journalists Pavla Holcova and Jaromir Hason.
They were recognized for their work probing into the corrupt business practices of the Azerbaijani president, who in 2012 was named the “Organized Crime and Corruption Person of the Year” by the OCCRP.
Ismayilova herself was threatened for her reporting as part of a “vicious state campaign to discredit her only for daring to speak out.” Global Shining Light Award judges commended Ismayilova on the bravery she exhibited “working in a dictatorship where her mission to uncover fraud and corruption can be life threatening.”
Ismayilova said the winners of the award collectively decided to donate its monetary prize to show their support for Zeynalli and his work.
Ismayilova stressed that the gesture is symbolic, a message of solidarity.
“He was doing anti-corruption reporting and it’s important we anti-corruption reporters step forward to say we stand by his work,” she said.