In mid-November, authorities arrested three journalists from Abzas Media, a rare creature in Azerbaijan’s heavily repressed media landscape: a Baku-based outlet publishing hard-hitting investigations, in particular into corruption by senior officials.
Ulvi Hasanli, Abzas’s director; Sevinj Vagifgizi, its editor in chief; and Mahammad Kekalov, the deputy director, were all arrested. A few days later, Aziz Orujov, the head of Internet television station Kanal 13, was also taken into custody. All were put in pretrial detention for terms of between three and four months. On November 30, a fourth journalist from Abzas, Nargiz Absalamova, was also arrested. As the Azerbaijani government is riding high on its military triumph in Nagorno-Karabakh — a disputed region that Baku won back from ethnic Armenian control in September — journalists in the country are increasingly being arrested and subject to a government-run media campaign accusing them of trying to undermine the country on behalf of the United States and Europe. With the government increasingly sensitive to accusations of corruption, press freedom groups say that the recent charges are politically motivated.
‘This Was The Last Straw’
Hasanli was the first of the Abzas journalists to be arrested. The outlet’s director said he was beaten while in custody and that, during his questioning, he was asked why Abzas chose to cover corruption rather than Azerbaijan’s military successes.
Editor Vagifgizi spoke to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service about Hasanli’s case just hours before she, too, was arrested.
“This is because of the free media’s investigations into President [Ilham] Aliyev’s family’s businesses, as well as the businesses of high-ranking officials close to his family,” she said.
It is accusations of corruption, analysts say, that the government and the family of President Aliyev care most about, as it can damage the ruling family’s domestic popularity and their international reputation.
Aliyev has been in power since 2003 and, throughout those two decades, has steadily tightened his control over the country. While he has overseen a boom in revenues from the country’s substantial oil and gas exports, many complain that little of that wealth has trickled down to ordinary Azerbaijanis. There are no reliable opinion polls in the country, but analysts agree that Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War of 2020 boosted his popularity and has neutered critics, at least for now.
The director of Abzas Media, Ulvi Hasanli (left); Sevinj Vagifgizi, its editor in chief; and Mahammad Kekalov, the deputy director, were all arrested.
Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. The two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts. Many of Abzas’s investigations have covered alleged corruption in the process of reconstruction in the territories that Azerbaijan retook in the Second Karabakh War. The stories have documented how companies connected to senior government officials, including members of Aliyev’s family, got state contracts or were able to acquire agricultural land without going through the standard competitive procedures. Abzas “is the last bastion of independent journalism” in Azerbaijan, said Hafiz Babali, a journalist who has written several articles for Abzas and who has himself been questioned by police about the publication.
Another investigation, published in early November, documented how companies tied to family members of the head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service had managed to take over a bank belonging to the former leader of Azerbaijan’s exclave of Naxcivan, who was pushed out of office in 2022 on a pretext of cleaning up corruption.
“This was the last straw,” Babali told RFE/RL. “This is when they decided they had to stop it.”
Blaming The United States
The crackdown on journalists has coincided with a sharp rhetorical turn against the United States, following Azerbaijan’s late September military offensive, which resulted in the surrender of the ethnic Armenian authorities who had ruled Nagorno-Karabakh for the past three decades and the flight of nearly all the more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians who were living there.
Government officials and pro-government media have seized on U.S. criticism of Azerbaijan’s offensive. At a November 15 hearing in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien said that the United States “condemned” the offensive.
“The [State] Department has made it clear to Azerbaijan that there cannot be business as usual in our bilateral relationship. The United States has condemned Azerbaijani actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, canceled high-level bilateral meetings and engagements with Azerbaijan, and suspended plans for future events,” O’Brien said.
Washington also suspended the relatively small amount of security assistance programs it carries out with Azerbaijan.
Baku fired back.
A Foreign Ministry statement called O’Brien’s remarks “counterproductive, baseless, and unacceptable,” and the Azerbaijani foreign minister pulled out of a meeting that had been scheduled in Washington with his Armenian counterpart.
Aliyev spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone on November 27 and the two sides put out markedly different statements about the call. The State Department referred to “recent points of concern in the relationship” and “the importance of high-level engagement.”
Abzas “is the last bastion of independent journalism” in Azerbaijan, said Hafiz Babali, a journalist who has written several articles for Abzas and who has himself been questioned by police about the publication.
The Azerbaijani readout of the conversation, meanwhile, said that the two had reached an agreement: Baku would allow O’Brien to visit Azerbaijan in exchange for Washington lifting its moratorium on meetings with Azerbaijani officials. U.S. officials have not confirmed that agreement.
Azerbaijani pro-government media portrayed the call as a significant walk-back from Washington.
“In this way, the State Department acknowledged the serious mistakes that U.S. diplomacy had made in the South Caucasus and cannot succeed in the region by unilaterally supporting Armenia and without a strong and stable relationship with Azerbaijan,” the news website Haqqin, associated with the country’s security services, wrote.
Western-Funded Journalism Targeted
This more antagonistic narrative toward the West has also taken aim at the role played by the United States in supporting journalism in Azerbaijan. A series of lengthy articles in the pro-government Report.az alleged that a network of organizations in Azerbaijan — including Abzas, another news outlet, Toplum TV, the Institute for Democratic Initiatives NGO, and an informal group of activists it labeled “radical feminists” — was operating under U.S. orders to undermine the Azerbaijani state. The articles singled out the U.S. Agency for International Development, the state foreign aid agency, for its alleged role.
One of the articles presented a series of contracts appearing to document payments made by Western grant-giving organizations to Abzas. It accused the “American provocation machine” of “forming compact, flexible gangs, consisting of so-called media and NGOs, holding the strings of these groups in its hands.” And it said those journalists had “secretly cooperated with a large number of donor organizations under the name of ‘supporting democratic development’ in order to create provocations and carry out other illegal missions.”
The veracity of the documents has not been confirmed.
A 2014 law on NGOs sharply restricted how Azerbaijani organizations can get funding from abroad. Abzas does not publicize who funds it, but USAID and other U.S. and European donors give grants to a variety of Azerbaijani media organizations.
“USAID provides local journalists with access to training opportunities to help advance journalistic excellence in Azerbaijan,” the organization says on its website. RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service, known locally as Azadliq, also reports about official local and government corruption and has faced significant pressure from the Azerbaijani government over the last two decades.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress but guaranteed editorial independence by U.S. law, Azadliq’s bureau was raided and closed in 2014, its website has been repeatedly blocked, and its journalists abused and detained. While RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service was banned from broadcasting on FM in 2009, it still reaches its audience via satellite, social media, and digital platforms.
Ulvi Hasanli is shown being detained on November 20. He says he was beaten while in custody and that, during his questioning, he was asked why Abzas chose to cover corruption rather than Azerbaijan’s military successes.
Lawyers for the arrested Abzas journalists have lodged a complaint in court about the Report.az articles, arguing that spreading the materials in the media was a violation of the presumption of innocence, RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service reported. “Such accusations about USAID assistance projects are false and fundamentally mischaracterize the purpose of our assistance. As always, our assistance is transparent. USAID programs around the world promote democratic values aimed at free and peaceful societies,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan.
It wasn’t just Azerbaijani journalists targeted but former students as well. A November 25 report on the website Qafqazinfo claimed that an upcoming meeting of a group of Azerbaijani alumni of U.S. universities amounted to a spy network operating in the country.
“Law enforcement agencies of Azerbaijan are already aware of the issue. It is reported that the event will be monitored in order to expose the participants in the future,” Qafqazinfo wrote.
The government does not tolerate any criticism after the [Second Karabakh] War, and they are very vulnerable to serious claims of corruption.”
The U.S. Embassy canceled the event, confirming the cancellation in a statement to the Turan news agency, without addressing the “agent” allegations.
Such investigations and an anti-Western campaign amount to a “spy hunt,” said Rufat Safarov, a founder of the Azerbaijani human rights organization Defense Line.
“Whenever the government faces political and diplomatic conflicts with some foreign country, it automatically starts to track its ‘spies’ inside the country,” he told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry announced on November 28 that it had summoned the U.S. ambassador, as well as the envoys from Germany and France.
“In the meetings, it was brought to the attention that [the] Abzas Media news portal carried out illegal financial operations with the participation of organizations registered in these countries, as well as that the embassies of the mentioned countries were also involved in this activity, and a serious objection was expressed to this activity,” the ministry said in a statement.
Many observers in Azerbaijan believe that the government embarked on the anti-U.S. campaign in order to provide a pretext for the crackdown on local journalists, especially as there has been no significant shift in the U.S. position vis-a-vis Azerbaijan, argued Anar Mammadli, a Baku-based political analyst. “The government does not tolerate any criticism after the [Second Karabakh] War, and they are very vulnerable to serious claims of corruption. These investigations [by Abzas] could also damage the political capital that the government gained after the war,” Mammadli said.
According to its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Azerbaijan 151st out of 180 countries, saying that “President Ilham Aliyev has wiped out any semblance of pluralism, and since 2014, he has sought ruthlessly to silence any remaining critics.”
This wave of arrests of journalists followed the arrest, in July, of prominent scholar and opposition figure Gubad Ibadoglu. After decades of repression, the space for opposition political groups is tiny in Azerbaijan — and still shrinking. Just this year, the government implemented new restrictions on how political parties can operate. Ibadoglu was charged with crimes related to counterfeiting, but supporters say the arrest was politically motivated. He was taken into custody two weeks after announcing his intention to launch a scholarship program for Azerbaijanis to study abroad. To fund it, he said, he would work with the United States, the United Kingdom, and European countries to appropriate money that corrupt Azerbaijani officials had stolen and stashed in overseas bank accounts. Ibadoglu’s family has said he has been beaten and denied access to medicine he needs. In September, a trade union leader, Afiaddin Mammadov, was arrested on charges of hooliganism, which he denies. The government may have targeted him because he has led protests of delivery drivers for companies that many believe are run by companies connected to government officials, Mammadli said.
And on December 2, Rufat Muradli, an anchor at Kanal 13, was detained, making him the sixth journalist to be apprehended in a two-week span.
“I’m just afraid that these arrests will not stop,” said Babali, the journalist. “Their appetite is very big.”