News that police in France arrested two men suspected of traveling to the city of Nantes to kill an Azeri blogger will be of little surprise to journalists in Azerbaijan.
Attacks, especially over reporting that is critical of authorities, are common, and a lack of bringing perpetrators to justice makes matters worse, journalists and analysts say.
Reporting on crime, corruption, human rights abuses or alleged wrongdoing by the government can result in attacks or pressure, with orders appearing to come from high up, some journalists told VOA. A culture of impunity adds to the risks.
Last month, an assailant attacked journalist Ayten Mammadova in her apartment building in the capital, Baku. A man followed the journalist into an elevator on May 8, held a knife to her throat and told her to stop reporting on a court case.
The assailant didn’t say which case he was referring to, but Mammadova believes it is related to her coverage of a trial of a man accused of the kidnap, rape and killing of a 10-year-old girl.
“I also received a threatening call on my landline, because I am one of the few journalists who have recently done research and written articles on this incident,” she told VOA. “I think there are certain forces that do not want the truth behind this incident to be revealed.”
The freelance journalist has been critical of the investigation and legal proceedings.
The man on trial said in court that he was not involved and had confessed after being tortured for four days, a claim the prosecutor general’s office denied.
In the case in France, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said police on Sunday arrested “two suspected hit men” about 90 km from where outspoken Azeri blogger Mahammad Mirzali lives.
The blogger’s address was in their GPS system and a photo of him was found in one of the suspect’s phones, RSF reported.
Mirzali, who lives in exile, has survived two knife attacks. RSF said he receives thousands of threatening messages via social media.
A lack of action in bringing perpetrators to justice increases the risk that other journalists will be attacked, said Khadija Ismayilova, editor-in-chief of Toplum TV.
“The atmosphere of impunity in the country sends a message to everyone that anyone can target journalists. Anyone can attack journalists. In some cases, the source of these attacks comes directly from above,” she told VOA. “People are targeted because they criticize the president and his family members and reveal things they want to keep secret.”
Shahin Hajiyev, executive director of the Najaf Najafov Foundation, a media development fund, told VOA that sooner or later all journalists are subjected to pressure if they seriously cover crime, corruption, human rights abuses or any other kind of wrongdoing by government agencies.
“This practice has been going on in Azerbaijan for a long time,” the director said. “There are certain topics, there are certain classes of people that you are forbidden to criticize or give negative information about. A journalist who violates this will be punished.”
‘Not based on fact’
Elshad Hajiyev, head of media and public relations at the Interior Ministry, which oversees law enforcement, told VOA such claims are baseless.
“All these allegations are subjective considerations, not based on fact. [The ministry] focuses on taking all measures in accordance with the law,” Hajiyev said.
The spokesperson added that Azerbaijan takes measures to bring perpetrators to justice.
Journalists and human rights activists have been pressured for years, according to independent journalist Natig Javadli.
“Journalists work in dangerous conditions,” Javadli said. “The attacks on not only Ayten Mammadova but [others] show that journalists are not safe.”
Ismayilova believes better communication between officials and the press is the way forward and that the president should lead by example and “be open to the press and tolerate criticism.”
“[Officials] must restore communication with journalists who can act as a bridge between them and society,” Ismayilova said.
Impunity in attacks must be addressed, the journalist said, adding, “No one who attacks free speech should go unpunished.”
One problem is that journalists do not have adequate access to necessary legal assistance, said lawyer and media rights expert Alasgar Mammadli.
“The state provides free legal assistance only to those accused of crimes. In addition, direct legal assistance is available only at the request of legal entities and with their own funds. In this regard, legal assistance in Azerbaijan is very limited to the media by nongovernmental organizations,” Mammadli said.
On the other hand, Mushfig Alasgarli, chair of the Trade Union of Journalists, said the state guarantees the safety of journalists at a high level.
Media security is “guaranteed by law” he told VOA, adding that several mechanisms exist to ensure safety.
“Any incidents involving journalist organizations or journalists are recorded, acted upon, and solidarity is created around that journalist for the issue to be resolved positively,” he said.
Pressure on independent journalists, including those in exile, and inaction on attacks against the media are among the obstacles to press freedom in Azerbaijan, said RSF.
The media watchdog ranks it 154th out of 180 countries where 1 is freest on its Press Freedom Index.
This article originated in VOA’s Azeri Service.