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Azerbaijan: Behind the glimmering facade, a war on free speech is raging

Baku

The news that a Guardian journalist was banned from entering Azerbaijan grabbed headlines across Europe. Although not exactly famed for its devotion to human rights and freedom of speech, the outright banning of a reporter from the inaugural European Games turned many heads.

Azerbaijan has been seeking to silence its critics through a mixture of intimidation and censorship, both internally and externally as part of its war on free speech.

Imprisonment

According to Reporters Without Borders, the number of ‘prisoners of conscience’ currently stands at about 80. Of this number around 12 are journalists or bloggers who have been arrested on a variety of charges including drugs offences and allegedly spying for another country.

Further to this some of the last remaining independent outlets are being crushed by political persecution. In terms of the press freedom index, Azerbaijan is ranked 162 out of 180 countries.

Blackmail

Another common method often used to silence journalists and opponents in Azerbaijan is blackmail. Again, according to Reporters Without Borders, Khadija Ismayilova was the victim of blackmail when a sex tape was leaked. Despite this Ismayilova continued to expose government corruption until she too was arrested by the authorities.

Student activism

The organisation Nida (N!da) has also been prominent in protesting corruption in Azerbaijan. The organisation originated in 2011 and coordinated a number of protests in the small oil rich nation.

As a result a number of their most prominent activists were arrested for a variety of charges including drugs offences and being accused of possessing deadly weapons.

The European ban

The Guardian was the most prominent outlet to be banned from reporting on the European Games, however this meant that only one full time newspaper reporter from the UK is reporting on the European Games. Only the London Evening Standard have a full time British press reporter in Azerbaijan. Sky have not sent any journalists while the BBC have sent four.

In addition to this a number of other organisations have also been turned away by the Azerbaijani authorities. Another prominent activist from Red pepper magazine, Emma Hughes, was deported from the country on 10 June.

Activists from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were also among the names blacklisted from attending the games in Baku.

On the eve of the opening of the European Games, the German Parliament passed a resolution criticising the human rights situation in Baku.

Words by Greg Bianchi

Picture from Flickr/Creative Commons

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