Remembering a brave journalist in Azerbaijan

Today, it is exactly 5 years ago today since the threats hanging over Azerbaijan’s highly-popular investigative journalist Elmar Huseynov, right, were finally enacted. The 38-year old Huseynov, founder and chief editor of weekly “Monitor”, was shot seven times by a silencer pistol and killed in the stairwells of his apartment in capital Baku on 2 March 2005.

The enquiries into the death of the famous journalist have been condemned as vague and half-hearted – with neither the hit man not those behind the killing were found. With the investigation remaining totally unproductive 5 years after the tragedy, few Azeris believe the case will ever be solved. Elmar’s colleagues and human rights watchdogs say the death was politically motivated and had been contracted to silence his work. The assassination was probably a decisive slap in the face of already curtailed freedom of media.

Elmar was the most prominent and outspoken among the few Azerbaijani journalists who dared to write countless investigative articles revealing embedded corruption, lawlessness and power abuse, often involving high-ranking members of the government and close associates of the President directly.

Not a journalist, but a “guerrilla”
Elmar’s “Monitor” journal stood out from much of the mainstream Azerbaijan media, which    continues to remain under total state control and fewer journalists are willing to cover politically sensitive topics. Elmar produced numerous investigative articles at great personal risks, whether receiving death threats or being subjected to heavy fines. He had also founded “Bakinskiy Bulvar” and “Bakinskie Vedomosty” newspapers, which were known for critical reporting and hard-hitting commentary.

With their long record of stifling freedom of expression, the Azeri authorities had constantly harassed Elmar, who faced scores of politicized lawsuits and pressures, ranging from imprisonment to hefty libel fines and from dozens of threats to luring offers aimed at stopping his unflinching investigative reporting that sought to expose corrupt officials. In many occasions, authorities attempted to close down the printing companies, where “Monitor” was published, and confiscate copies of the journal from state and private newsstands. He had repeatedly been charged by the authorities with defaming Azerbaijani population, insulting the honor and dignity of government officials, and spreading libelous information.

But such intimidations and harassments were well beyond to discourage Elmar. In one of his interviews, he had likened his way of journalism to a ‘guerrilla fighting’. He never shied away from personal risks, as he was courageous, investigative and tough on the human rights abuses of Azeri government. Such outspokenness had indeed earned him many bitter enemies within the ruling regime and had made him the target of numerous death threats.

Tragedy and outrage
The assassination of Elmar on 2 March 2005 led to international outpourings of sorrow, criticism and demands for an honest investigation to bring the killers before the justice. Then Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis said in a statement: “I am shocked by the brutal murder of Elmar Huseynov, which has all the hallmarks of a contract killing and I condemn it in strongest terms”.

The Azeri authorities was quick to dispel any doubts that the government was standing behind or somehow connected to this vicious crime. President Aliyev called the murder a “black spot” on country’s international image and “negative impact on democratic development of Azerbaijan”. President ordered the speedy resolution of the tragic act and assured the family, colleagues and the public at large that justice would be done. Since the death case was designated as “terror act”, the investigation mandate was later transferred from the Office of Prosecutor General to the Ministry of the National Security (MNS). Though two ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia – Tahir Khubanov and Teymuraz Aliyev – were declared as the prime suspects of the crime, their photos and information on their alleged roles still remain as “investigation’s secret”. Authorities point at finger Georgia for refusing to extradite these suspects to Azerbaijan for prosecution.

Today, the official investigation remains shadowed or almost stopped, while the suspected brains behind the assassination enjoy impunity. With the killers at large and no clear evidence of who actually ordered the death, Elmar’s widow, Rushana Huseynova speculates that someone from the government did the order of the assassination of her husband. When she published her suspicions that authorities were involved in murder, she grew fearful following the alleged death threats. Rushana, with her little son, is now a political migrant in Norway and struggles to find the truth behind the murder.

Chilling effect on media
The murder of Elmar Huseynov and the growing impunity for the perpetrators against the outspoken journalists had a chilling effect on the freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, where government exhibits almost no tolerance of a free media. There is an increasing environment of state hostility towards the independent and critic voices and that raises serious concern about the personal security of investigative journalists. The government has applied a full range of methods – regulatory, economic, judicial, as well as harassment and intimidation – to reinforce its media dominance and stifle the dissent.

Since Elmar was gunned down, numerous independent and pro-opposition journalists have faced abductions, beatings, stabbings and other physical attacks. None of these politically motivated and vicious assaults have ever been investigated by the authorities and this has caused the institutionalized perception of a climate of impunity for violence against government-critics.

Azerbaijan continues to show downtrend trajectory in international freedom indexes, with Raporters Sans Frontiers ranking Azerbaijan 146th out of 175 countries. The state-orchestrated media crackdown made Azerbaijan to lag well behind the other two states in Southern Caucasus – Georgia and Armenia.  Amnesty International said the opposition journalists in Azerbaijan are “increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death”.

The authorities expanded a crackdown on media in early 2009 by banning Azeri language service of the Radio Liberty, Voice of America and BBC radios in local frequencies of Azerbaijan. These radio outlets were the only stations offering a pluralism of political views, dissenting voices and alternative information to the Azerbaijan society.

At present, Eynulla Fatullayev and Ganimat Zahid, chief editors of country’s two prominent opposition papers are kept behind the bars on politically- motivated charges. The arrest of Emin Milli and Adnan  Hajizade, two well-known youth activists and bloggers, had further attempted to limit the space the for freedom of expression, with sending a chilling message to those who use social media and are critical of the government.

The government’s failure to stop hunting the critics and to solve the murder of Elmar Huseynov shows how far the country is from being a democracy with a working independent judiciary and real political will. At stake is not only the declining media freedom, but also the lives of Azerbaijan’s determined journalists.

Elmar Huseynov – A Symbol of Courage
This week – in this sad anniversary – the fellow-journalists, right activists and many ordinary Azeris will be paying tribute to country’s determined and fearless reporter – Elmar Huseynov, who gained respect and recognition through his invaluable reporting and bravery. With everyone sure of the political nature of the killing, there is less confidence about the prospects for a conclusive investigation and real breakthrough in near future. 

But, for many Azeris, Elmar Huseynov will remain the essence of what a professional and honest journalist should be. Huseynov’s courageous journalism will become a role model for Azerbaijan’s media community, as he was investigating and reporting the power abuse and corruption that he believed were ruining and blocking the country’s development towards a normal state of democracy.

He much believed in the possibility of a democratic Azerbaijan. With his principles and dedication, Elmar Huseynov set an example to us all.


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