Azerbaijan: News Outlets Publish Falsified Version of Jailed Journalist’s Letter

Published: 15 June 2015

Khadija Ismayilova


Several news outlets in Azerbaijan published a heavily edited and falsified version of a letter by jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova.

The original letter, published in The New York Times on June 11, is a plea for people to work towards exposing corruption and releasing political prisoners.

Its author, Khadija Ismayilova, is an award-winning investigative journalist who exposed corruption in the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government.

But when Ismayilova’s letter was published last week, some Azerbaijani news outlets responded by publishing their own falsified versions in grammatically poor Azeri and English.

They mimicked some of the original letter line-for-line, but changed some of the language to implicate Ismayilova in treason and other crimes.

For example, the original letter reads, "I am a journalist, in jail for my work exposing corruption at the highest levels of the Azerbaijani government."

The version published by some Azerbaijani media outlets reads: "I'm a journalist who does all the orders from US related to the smear campaign against Azerbaijan, but I did not forget about myself, I've stolen a portion of the funds for myself, I've carried out illegal financial transactions and avoided taxation - that's why I'm sitting in the prison."

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) the letter was published with Ismayilova’s name and image, without any indication that the piece was changed or whether the intent was satirical.

The falsified letter originally appeared on the site of Baku-based SIA news agency. It was subsequently published by a number of other outlets.

One such outlet was the Kaspi news agency, whose founders include Sona Veliyeva. Veliyeva and her husband Ali Hasanov were the subject of one of Ismayilova’s investigations.

Speaking about Azerbaijan’s crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders, Ismayilova writes to the New York Times: "They didn’t want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths."

Inverting the meaning, the falsified letter turns this line into an admission of guilt on Ismayilova’s part. "They do not want to see the crimes we have committed, they do not want to hear the dangerous lies we tell," it reads.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Rebecca Vincent of the Sport for Rights campaign, says: "It is the latest incident in many years of attacks against Khadija, and shows that they still fear what she has to say, even from behind bars.”

The real letter was penned from jail, where Ismayilova has been held in pre-trial detention for more than half a year now. She was originally arrested over the bizarre charge of driving a colleague to attempt suicide, but her accuser has since withdrawn his allegation.

Now she faces an array of other charges including tax evasion, running an illegal business, and abuse of power. Ismayilova has denied the allegations, labelling the charges “ridiculous”. International Human Rights groups have also cried foul, calling the case against her politically motivated.

While Ismayilova’s previous letters have been largely ignored by the Azerbaijani press, the eyes of the world have turned to the small Caspian state as it hosts the lavish European Games. The large-scale sporting event, which opened last Friday, has attracted thousands of athletes from around the continent.

The multi-million dollar spectacle has been subject to much controversy. A number of journalists and international organizations have been blocked from entering the country. Among those barred are Amnesty International, who had previously called for the release of Ismayilova and at least 20 others they label prisoners of conscience.

The Guardian also reports that its correspondent was blocked from travelling to Baku.