IRFS Launches #FreeMehman Campaign Ahead of World Press Freedom Day

April 3rd, 2017

(Baku, Azerbaijan) – Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) is launching a 30-day campaign ahead of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) calling on UNESCO to hold Azerbaijani authorities accountable for their frantic crackdown on free expression.Specifically, we call on UNESCO to demand the immediate and unconditional release of IRFS’ Chairman, popular blogger Mehman Huseynov, jailed for exposing torture, corruption and official misconduct in Azerbaijan.

“It’s a travesty that Mehman Huseynov, a well-respected blogger fighting corruption and injustice was jailed in a sham defamation case after he had reported torture and ill-treatment by police. But this is just one of many cases of media harassment and intimidation of journalists carried out by the Azerbaijani authorities,” said Emin Huseynov, IRFS Chief Executive Officer.

With this campaign, we ask for our supporters to create content on social media with the hashtag #FreeMehman and tag UNESCO in those posts. You can support us by agreeing to donate your social media accounts to our thunderclap campaign. The program will just quickly send out a message through your account ten days before World Press Freedom Day on 23 April to raise awareness and bring it to the attention of the Azerbaijani political regime that the world is watching.

Here is the letter we sent to the General Director of UNESCO:

“Dear Madam Irina Bokova,

The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety strongly condemns the decision of the Baku city court on 3 March 2017 to sentence the IRFS chairman and popular blogger Mehman Huseynov to two years in prison and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. IRFS calls on UNESCO to bolster accountability for press freedom abuses in Azerbaijan, and immediately apply sanctions against the Azerbaijani ruling establishment.

IRFS would like to note that the country’s First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva is also a UNESCO Good Will Ambassador. The fact, that a UN organisation, mandated by UN member states to promote freedom of expression, continues to have Mehriban Aliyeva—who, along with her husband, the President of Azerbaijan, are behind some of the most outrageous violations of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan – as its Good Will Ambassador is nothing more than an assault on the very notion of press freedom. To this end, IRFS reiterates its calls for UNESCO to dismiss Mehriban Aliyeva as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors immediately.

On 9 January the police kidnapped and held Mehman Huseynov for several hours driving him around and torturing him. They covered his head with a sack to restrict his breathing and shocked him with a stun gun. After holding him overnight the authorities fined him 200 manat and released him. He then openly spoke about his torture and detention to the press and directly to the public through blogging and his work with IRFS. Because he reported the torture the authorities proceeded to charge him with criminal defamation.

Criminal defamation is often used to silence and intimidate critics under authoritarian regimes. International organisations have denounced and fought against criminal defamation all over the world. Azerbaijan has an extremely high number of criminal defamation cases and almost all of them are against political dissidents or critics of the authorities.

Between Mehman’s report of torture and the actual court case for criminal defamation, Mehman continued his work and produced a satirical video asking the average citizen if they would appoint their spouse to be vice president of their company. This was an obvious reference to the fact that the president of Azerbaijan appointed his wife to the newly invented position of First Vice President. After this report went viral the court sentenced Mehman to two years in prison after it originally seemed they would not be too harsh on him.

This pattern suggests that the country’s first family is behind the conviction.

In September 2014, UNESCO designated Merhiban Aliyeva as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions ‘in recognition of her action to promote traditional music, literature and poetry’.

As the case of Mehman Huseynov clearly illustrates, Aliyeva’s government restricts the right to artistic freedom of expression, and creative dissent is increasingly suppressed. As a result, few artists remain willing to publicly express critical views or use their work to explore controversial themes, and those who do so face serious consequences.

UNESCO is harming the reputation of the UN by having a “Goodwill Ambassador” who is the second in command of a political regime that is silencing the media and throwing journalists and creative dissidents like Mehman Huseynov in prison.

To this end, we call on UNESCO to dismiss Mehriban Aliyeva as one of its Goodwill Ambassadors immediately to hold the regime accountable for the blatant free expression violations. We ask you, Madam Bokova, to urge Azerbaijani authorities to:

1. Free Mehman Huseynov immediately and unconditionally; drop all charges against him

2. Release all those who are behind bars for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and cease the use of detention and imprisonment to punish critical voices

3. Lift travel ban against Khadija Ismayilova and other activists

4. Immediately stop the crackdown against opposition daily Azadliq and other critical media

5. Immediately stop Internet censorship including the recent widespread blocking of critical websites.

6. End all forms of impunity for those who attack or kill journalists and ensure that all cases of violence against journalists – including the murders of Elmar Huseynov, Alim Kazimli, Novruzali Mamedov, Rafiq Tagi and Rasim Aliyev are resolved and all guilty parties are punished in accordance with the law.

7. Remove defamation provisions from the Criminal Code.

8. Reverse the ban prohibiting foreign broadcasters from accessing national frequencies.

9. Withdraw the restrictive amendments limiting the activities of journalists and media outlets.

10. Review and amend other media legislation to ensure it complies with international standards for press freedom.

11. Establish an Independent Press Ombudsman in line with international standards and empower that position with the authority