Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrests of five more journalists in Azerbaijan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrests of five more journalists in Azerbaijan on trumped-up charges of “foreign currency smuggling,” on which they face up to eight years in prison. The five journalists with Toplum TV, a YouTube news channel, were serving the public interest with their reporting on corruption, says RSF, calling for the release of the three still held.

The five Toplum TV journalists are the latest victims of the harassment of independent media by the Azerbaijani authorities. They include its director, Alasgar Mammadli, who has been held since 8 March and whose provisional detention was extended for at least four months on 15 March although he has early-stage cancer requiring regular treatment. The police claim that they found 7,200 euros in cash at his home. On 25 March, his lawyer asked the European Court of Human Rights to rule that he is the victim of arbitrary detention.

Two of the other four journalists, Ilkin Amrakhov and Mushvig Jabbarov, are also still being held since a police raid on Toplum TV headquarters on 6 March, while the other two, Elmir Abbasov and Farid Ismailov, have been released under police control. The police also claim to have found 3,100 euros in cash at Ismailov’s home.

All are facing between three and five years in prison on clearly trumped-up charges of “foreign currency smuggling” – a charge previously used in November 2023 against journalists with Abzas Media, who accused the police of planting the money in order to have a pretext for arresting them.

“The government’s aim is clear – to clamp down on civil society and crush all dissenting voices. After eliminating all forms of political pluralism, President Ilham Aliyev is now trying to force independent media to toe the official line. We call on Azerbaijan’s partners to stop turning a blind eye to the sharp decline in respect for press freedom in this country and to act accordingly, said Jeanne Cavelier, Head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk

The 6 March police raid on Toplum TV took place just hours after the German TV channel SWR broadcast a report about corruption in Azerbaijan’s gas and oil sector in which Toplum TV editor-in-chief Khadija Ismailova appeared.

Ismailova, who spent more than a year and a half in prison following her arrest in 2014 in connection with her investigative reporting, was not present when the raid took place and she has not been arrested since then. But she was subjected to several intense interrogations and has been banned from leaving the country.

At least three people linked to Toplum TV, non-journalistic employees, were also arrested after the raid. And Mammadli’s brother-in-law, Aydin Aliyev, was fired by the clinic where he worked as a radiologist for sharing a video of Mammadli’s arrest.

The SWR report highlighted endemic corruption in the national gas and oil sector at a time when the European Union is planning to double its acquisitions of Azerbaijani gas by 2027 to replace Russian gas. The report also implicated several Azerbaijani gas industry executives in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist killed by a bomb placed in her car in 2017. Such claims clearly undermine the attempts by Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, to promote his country internationally as a respectable and attractive partner.

Azerbaijan has been steadily stepping up its harassment of the media. Since a very controversial media bill was signed into law in 2022, the state had become increasingly authoritarian, violating its own constitution and international treaties ratified by Azerbaijan.

Toplum TV is the third independent media victim in the past six months. First, journalists with the investigative media Abzas Media were arrested in November and then journalists with the Kanal 13 YouTube channel were arrested in December. Two other journalists, with the Turan Agentliyi news agency and the JAMNews site, were also arrested.

Smear campaigns have also been organised by government allies claiming that independent media and organisations that defend them, such as RSF, are acting as mouthpieces of the United States, France, and the West and suffer from “Azerbaijanophobia.”

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