“It’s all about communication”. Challenges and risks for Azerbaijani journalists and activists

Wroclaw, Poland. 31 January 2016

“Many people don’t know where Azerbaijan is. I heard that somebody had problems in hospitals and airports in Italy. Their documents were thought to be faked, because of the weird and unknown name of the country. I met many people in Poland that thought that Azerbaijan was a state in the USA, or a city in Ukraine, or that it was still part of Russia” Naila says.

Naila, in Poland. Photo courtesy of Naila

She starts to tell about her country with these words, quite surprised that someone could be so interested in her place of origin. She arrived in Wroclaw one year and a half ago, to start her Master degree in Intercultural Communication. “Previously I was studying Azeri Philology. I started to work at the university, sitting in an office and writing papers. But I soon realized it was a big mistake. I couldn’t spend my entire life there, working on past stuff. I felt the need to get engaged, to be active, to work with people, and to do something for my society”. Aiming at getting a better level of education, she started to look at Europe. Encouraged by the low living costs of Poland, she decided to apply for her Master at Wroclaw University. Some stereotypes about the low educational standards in post-soviet countries still persisted in her mind. Luckily, these stereotypes could fast disappear, and now Naila considers herself satisfied with the quality of education, the course-offer in English, and the opportunity to continuously reflect and open her mind. “Unfortunately, I realized that in Azerbaijan I was not learning anything. When I was attending some public meetings and lectures with experts who studied abroad I started to ask myself what I was doing at the university. I began to see better the society, and my mind opened and started to work” she says.


Challenging past and controversial present. Similarly to Poland, Azerbaijan is a country with a young history. It broke up with his soviet past in 1991, getting the independence and starting a new path, that however has showed some very controversial steps. Even if quite unknown among the majority of Europeans, the country has started to attract some interest from Europe for different reasons. The Eurovision song contest took place there in 2012. The first European Olympic Games were hosted last June in the capital Baku. Particularly, the very profitable business opportunities in the field of oil attract the interest of Western countries, especially of Italy. On the other side, there are other voices that speak about Azerbaijan from a very diverse and much more critical stand. Reporter Without Borders, NGO involved internationally for the protection of journalists and for freedom of expression, in 2015 defined Azerbaijan “Europe’s biggest prison for news providers”. In the World Press Freedom Index of 2015, provided every year by the association, the country ranked 162 out of 180. The clear words of Naila leave no room for misunderstandings. “The media is under the control of government, especially TV. You cannot get free and unbiased information from them. They are just concerned about creating a good image of the country and propaganda for the president. We cannot know anything. Every year we have young soldiers in the military service that die. We don’t know why. We’re told they committed suicide, or that they had some diseases. But how could it be possible? What are the real reasons? The shootings with Armenia, the violence in the military? How did they die? We cannot know” she says.


New “fresh minds” come forward. Naila, similarly to many other young people in the country, began to ask herself new and compelling questions. Starting to see things from a different perspective, she got involved in the Nida youth movement, established in 2011. “Nida” means exclamation mark. “It means that we are coming. We, young people, want to change something. The older generation of my country is different. Within four years they experienced traumatic changes. Genocide, war, crisis, inflation and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everything changed, and now they are concerned about keeping safe, just to live their life and follow the flow. They don’t want to risk anymore. But me, and my generation, just saw these things from the media. We have fresh minds. We are ready to do something new, and to risk, because we are young!” she says.

Naila tells that initially the Nida movement did not face any political repression. However, as the movement went on with its campaigns and demonstrations, some activists started to be arrested, charged with pretentious excuses, such as possession of Molotov cocktails or use of narcotic drugs. Currently, six of them are still detained. This mechanism of intimidation and trumped-up charges is well-known and widely deployed by authorities, and it works in the same way with prominent journalists. “There are opposition journalists, but they risk their lives when reporting against the government, their corruption and the anti-democratic practices” says Naila.


No freedom, no safety. In 2005 one journalist, Elmar Huseynov, who was heavily criticizing the ruling class for corruption, was murdered in front of his door with gunshots. The real circumstances of the crime are still unknown. In 2011 Rafiq Tagi, a doctor carrying out journalist activity with a critical stand towards political Islam, Iran and Azerbaijani government, was stabbed. He subsequently died in the hospital when he was thought to be already out of danger. Recently a very critical voice on the web, the video-blogger Mehman Huseynovwas denied the authorization to leave the country and to use his passport or identity card. This list of harassment, intimidation, blackmails and arrests is not exhaustive, and goes on including many other journalists, in the country and abroad, as well as activists, bloggers and human rights advocates.

Khadija Ismayilova is also one of the bravest journalist. She is in prison right now, because charged of having driven a friend to attempt suicide. She was writing about offshore affairs of the president and his family. In Azerbaijan it is illegal for politicians to have personal business affairs when holding office” Nail tells. “First she was anonymously blackmailed and warned to stop with her work. Then some hidden video-cameras were placed in her bedroom, and the records of her private life where then published on-line. This attempt to discredit her didn’t work. It was a big failure of the government strategy. We don’t care about her private life. We know she is doing good job, and that’s the only thing we care! The society is changing and the government still cannot understand it!” she says.


Alternative news-providers. The young people part of this Azerbaijani diverse, active and brave young generation keep themselves updated thanks to foreign media and the Internet. Last December a big accident occurred in one of the oil-platforms on the Caspian Sea. The fatal accident occurred during a storm and was caused, reportedly, by the poor working conditions and the denial for the workers to leave the structures. Naila remembers that the only way to discover the real number of people who died was to read news from foreign reporters. However, there is an alternative. “There is an independent channel, Meydan TV. It’s a media ‘in exile’, based in Germany and run by the dissident writer Emin Milli, who was previously in jail in Azerbaijan. They are aiming at providing fair and reliable news, even if in my opinion sometimes they give misinterpretations or exaggerated news. They should be very careful in the way they propose news, and be aware especially of their audience. They should try to avoid to make people aggressive or angry, but without any chance to express it” she says.


Struggling for dialogue. “I’ve decided to enroll in the department of Sociology also because of the serious lack of sociologists in my country. We have a huge number of internally-displaced people, but there are no social workers with professional competences to face the situation” says Naila. The flow of internally displaced people comes from the area of Nagorno Karabakh. The area is theater of continuous attacks and shootings between Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries, despite the official cease-fire established after the war for gaining control over the area in 1994. The region, considered part of the territory of Azerbaijan but with a majority of inhabitants of Armenian origin, declared self-independence in 1991, under the name of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However, it has not been recognized by the international community, and it still remains a battlefield competed between the two neighboring countries. “For the internally-displaced people, and for many others, Armenia is just the enemy. Armenians attacked their land, they stole their houses. These people carry with them very traumatic memories. And the government always gives hopes to them, saying that they will get back their houses and their hometowns. But these are lies. They’re just manipulating people, supporting this creation of the idea of the enemy” Naila says.

Entering the area of Nagorno Karabakh without the authorization of the Azerbaijan government is prohibited. The borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia are closed. People who have visited Armenia, regardless of their nationality, undergo usually more careful controls at the border checks, or they are even denied the access to Azerbaijan.

“There is no possibility to meet people from Armenia, there isn’t any comfort-zone” tells Naila. “The first time I met an Armenian I was in Moldova. I introduced myself to that girl, and when we were about to hold our hands something very weird happened. I realized that my hand was shaking. I didn’t expect it. She’s my neighbor, she’s the same age as me. But I had stereotypes. They killed people and similar things. But as soon as I met her I started to change my mind. I’m not responsible for what my father did. Maybe my father killed her father, maybe his father killed my relatives. I decided that we are not responsible of what our fathers did twenty years ago. I just want to communicate with them” she says.

Naila, during a manifestation in Azerbaijan. Photo courtesy of Naila


“It’s all about communication”. Since some years, Naila has been taking part in the One Caucasus  Borderland project. The project, whose organizer is from Warsaw, takes places every summer in Georgia, with the support of the Georgian government. The aim is to provide young people from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan the possibility to meet and work, living together for some weeks and organizing workshops, events and concerts. “Thanks to the project, I broke all my stereotypes. Now one of my best friends is Armenian. They’re like us. What is happening it’s not the problem of the society, it’s a political problem. Politics takes people under control, and people cannot communicate. If only they let us, really, we could live again peacefully together” she says. Stereotypes and prejudices are however deeply rooted in the minds, sometimes hidden and sometimes overt, and there is a long way to go before overcoming them and embracing a more open approach. “The Georgian food is way too much spicy for me, but luckily while I was there our chef from Armenia brought for me some jam. When I told it to my father, who was in Armenia and had Armenian friends before the war, he simply said ‘Be careful, she’s Armenian’” told Naila with a sad smile. “I hope this project will involve increasingly more people. I could see there the real peace, when people work together. The aim is to make people communicate” she says.

During last summer spent with the association, a journalist got interested in the project and wrote an article about it, with a kind of suspicious tone. What are these people doing there? Trying to solve the conflict or having fun? “Of course, we’re having fun. I didn’t do any conflict and sure I’m not going to solve it. So we’re just having fun. They didn’t understand what we’re trying to do” replies firmly Naila. With strong determinacy and passion, the commitment of Naila for bringing about changes is clearly set to go further. Since a long time her overt criticism against the government and her call for changes are clear. She is also active in Facebook, the powerful tool that seems to be still “partly free”, which can allow to overtly express criticism. However, after the article about the One Caucasus Borderland project, things got more complicated. “Even if I don’t have my real name in Facebook, my father got a call. Yes, we know her and what she writes. So, do something with her. Otherwise… otherwise we don’t know. And then I just took my luggage and came here. It was in September. After our festival in Georgia” she says. She is deeply aware of the risks that her father, who is working as architect for the government, could face, risking to lose his job. However, she feels a compelling need to go on struggling. “My father is angry and proud of me at the same time. But why should I stop? I cannot live in Europe for my entire life, because of my identity. I’ve my Caucasus identity, I’ve my Azeri identity. What is my identity in Wroclaw, where is my identity in Europe? We have different languages and different lifestyles. I’m against my government, but not against my country. I would like to live there, that’s why I should struggle and should not stop to pursue my education. Because I have my working brain” she says.