Azerbaijan Advisory - Safety of journalists worsens ahead of Eurovision

The situation for journalists working in Azerbaijan is rapidly deteriorating ahead of next month's Eurovision song contest.

On Wednesday, an award-winning investigative journalist was attacked and hospitalized after being beaten by security officers working for state-run energy firm Socar.

Witnesses said that Idrak Abbasov had been covering a protest by local residents against the oil giant’s demolition of their homes on the outskirts of the capital, Baku.

"They took his camera, bowled him over and started kicking him. He was bleeding, his head was injured and one eye was swollen," said the journalist’s brother Roman who was recording the protest, according to the Azerbaijani news agency Turan.

Other journalists were also attacked by the company’s employees during the same protest, according to reports.

And last month, Radio Free Europe investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova claims she was targeted after a sex tape showing her with her partner appeared on a fake opposition party website.

Ismailova, who has exposed corruption in Azerbaijan including among President Ilham Aliyev's family and inner circle, believes that the film, recorded by a covert camera planted in her apartment, was supposed to intimidate her.

“I had received warnings but I didn’t take them seriously. They had to punish – they couldn’t punish me for my stories, because those were fact-based. So they decided to defame me,” she said.

She added that her case was not unique and other journalists had reported hidden cameras planted in their room.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan, which is hosting the Eurovision song contest in May, is keen to project an image of a modern, prosperous society to visiting journalists and the international community.

But critics say that corruption is rife in Aliyev's government. In February, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report about forced evictions of home owners in Baku to make way for construction for the flashy singing competition.

Ismailova says that a story she had been working on linking members of the President's family to a huge construction project was probably a story the blackmailers were hoping to suppress.

“You have to warn journalists about this in Azerbaijan because my case is the third one. It is not a rare thing here.

“Now we have lots of journalists coming for Eurovision, so they have to be aware.”

Celia Davies, of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) based in Baku, said:

“The brutal attack on Idrak Abbasov is a bleak reminder that independent journalists in Azerbaijan are a vulnerable group operating in a hostile environment. Visiting journalists should be aware of their own safety, and also of the risks they ask any local staff to take.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has repeatedly criticised the country for its growing crackdown on the press. A report published earlier this month says the country is among the top 10 jailers of journalists, with six reporters behind bars. Countless opposition bloggers have been arrested and detained.


The International News Safety Institute, collaborating with IRFS, has the following safety advice for journalists planning to travel to Baku to cover the Eurovision song contest:*

Wait to get your visa before you start contacting local sources. A number of journalists have been denied visas in the past month, and they suspect their plans were known in advance (hence no visa).

Be prepared to answer questions about what you are doing. You will attract suspicion. Be calm, polite, and as transparent as possible

Make at least three copies of all your material, as frequently as possible. Consider using DHL etc. to ship out footage halfway through if you’re doing any video production. Bring your own data storage (expensive and not easy to get in Baku, especially high volume).

When travelling to Azerbaijan, carry as much as possible in your hand luggage. There have been many cases of cabin baggage being interfered with. Do not put sensitive items in your hold luggage - divide your items and make duplicates of information so if it gets taken you will have backups.

When taking photos/shooting video on the Bulvar (the sea front), you need to ask permission from the security guards. There are many. They will very likely say yes, but you need to ask.

State Ministries – you are likely to run into trouble if you try to take photos/film. Be very discreet, or try asking the guards. Depending on the ministry you may be allowed if you show them the photos afterwards. Don’t even consider trying to do so with the Presidential Adminstration building

There is a minor risk that your hotel room could be bugged. As a basic rule of thumb, don’t do anything you wouldn’t want on camera. Journalists have been targeted in hotel rooms and secret cameras have taped intimate scenes which have been used for blackmail or broadcast publicly, or both. Consider that this may not be just affect your own dignity, but also the safety of anyone you might be with – for example, a local who could be branded as a spy, be personally humiliated etc.

When arranging interviews in advance, bear in mind that encryption probably isn’t being used at the Baku end. Many journalists/activists still use Yahoo for email. Try to avoid calling their local mobile numbers – stick to Skype.

Consider avoiding obviously Western themed bars, particulary in the area of Fountain Square, in the light of the number of arrests of alleged Iranian terrorists planning to target Israeli and Western embassies.

If you don't have accreditation, don't bring large pieces of equipment that are obviously professional standard - something like the Canon 5d or 7d is best. Don't carry it in a special camera bag.

Broadly speaking, the primary risks are to journalists' material (video, photo etc), equipment, and the locals with whom you are engaging –whether as interviewees, subjects of photographs, or fixers. They may be unaware of the risks they are taking.



* Please note that INSI is passing on tips from people working on the ground and can therefore can not vouch for the validity of them.


Main Photo: Preparations are under way for Eurovision 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan (Flikr/Ecograph Galina)