Do state interests trump ‘free speech’?

An Azeri journalist asks: Who has the right to set the news agenda, journalists or governments?

Azerbaijan''s President Ilham Aliyev waves during a meeting with Pope Francis at the Presidential Palace in Ganjlik
The Azerbaijani media does not abstain from criticism, it freely voices its opinion about both officials and the head of state, writes Hasret [Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters]

This article is part of Al Jazeera’s Journalism Matters project. As part of this series, we asked two Azeri journalists with opposing views on the state of the media in their country to share their perspectives. The other article, by investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, can be read here

On this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the way the freedom of the media and the right to obtain and spread information is ensured globally and in separate countries is generating a wide-ranging discussion. We should admit that the entire world is now facing serious problems in this area, and there is little hope that these problems will be solved in the near future.

An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) official has recently highlighted sad statistics relating to the freedom of the media in 2016 in developing countries as well as in America and Europe. The murder of two journalists in Finland, pressure on media representatives in the United States and France, discussion of tough draft media laws in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK testified to a rapidly growing and disquieting trend.

‘Lack of respect’

Creating a free environment for journalists or removing artificial barriers they face is not the main problem. In many cases, it’s about a lack of respect for key principles such as journalistic ethics and responsibility.

Should someone who calls him or herself a journalist be sanctioned if he or she becomes part of dirty financial schemes or is engaged in tax avoidance? Can this person be held accountable if they act in the interests of separate circles and groups to conduct a smear campaign against others and to make groundless allegations to discredit them? Naturally, doing so is a serious crime and those who violate the law must be brought to justice regardless of who they are.

Therefore, I think that the accusations against Azerbaijan made by Khadija Ismayilova, who was sentenced for such illegal activities, in her article published by Al Jazeera are biased and there are serious doubts about the credibility of these accusations.

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I have independently studied the investigations of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its articles written by Ismayilova. I do not want to focus on what OCCRP is, which sources it uses and what are main goals behind its articles.

Investigating lost billions

Similarly, I do not intend to investigate the allegations that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or other autocratic leaders have multibillion-dollar wealth. If these billions really existed, they would have been given back to the peoples of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other countries hit by the Arab Spring. So this multibillion wealth was either a myth or a pretext or someone just squirrelled them away. Anyway, lack of information gives reasons to make such assumptions.

The allegations that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has a wealth of billions of dollars, that his family owns off-shore companies and some of the largest companies in the country seem to be part of a campaign against Azerbaijan, which is chosen as another victim against the background of the Arab Spring.

READ MORE: Azerbaijan releases Khadija Ismayilova from jail

The documents that I have studied and my talks with officials give me reason to say that contrary to the allegations of OCCRP and Ismayilova, companies operating in Azerbaijani gold fields are not owned by members of Ilham Aliyev’s family.

Founded in February 2015, AzerGold is a closed joint-stock company, with 100 percent of its shares owned by the Azerbaijani state. Anglo Asian Mining PLC gold production company was cofounded by the Azerbaijani government and its foreign partners. Similarly, there is not any evidence or document proving that Aliyev’s family members founded or own any mobile operator.

The Azerbaijani mobile operator mentioned by Ismayilova in her article is related to Swedish TeliaSonera, which would hardly have overtly discredited itself.

‘Baseless accusations’

Ismayilova alleges that the government of Azerbaijan is making a profit from the reconstruction of road and transport infrastructure. But is that the case? I don’t think so. What – and why – should one accuse the government, if Azerbaijani citizens are driving their cars on world-class roads, if six airports have been built in the country, if air, sea and railroad infrastructure has been completely modernised to provide international transit services, if Azerbaijan has become a transit hub linking the east with the west and the north with the south?

How can I accuse the Azerbaijani government over organising Eurovision, First European Games, Formula 1, Fourth Islamic Solidarity Games and other high-profile international events? These games and events have been hosted by France, Germany, the UK and tens of other developed Western countries as well as Arab countries, including the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar.

Is hosting high-profile international events indicative of corruption and embezzlement? This is illogical, isn’t it? These events have introduced Azerbaijan to the world as thousands of Europeans, Arabs, Chinese and others are now coming to Azerbaijan as tourists. And the country is now getting back the money invested in organising these events, and is even making a profit. Is that bad?

The Trump effect

Targeting governments and states, portraying the authorities and the media as antagonists in the interests of certain groups is not independent journalism.


With his election as US president, Donald Trump has faced a tough campaign launched by a large and influential network. Along with Trump himself, this network has targeted all those who have close ties to him, and even those who have happened to meet and speak to him.

This network has traced Trump-linked corruption allegations to different countries, including Azerbaijan. And the reason is that a firm owned by Trump constructed a building in Baku in partnership with an Azerbaijani company. As a result, Trump-related corruption allegations were tied to Azerbaijan. But not a single word has been said about the cancellation of the contract, which happened in early 2016, and no evidence of Trump’s links with Azerbaijani officials has ever been provided. Maybe Ismayilova and the network she belongs to do not like the American president, and this is why they are trying to draw parallels between him and autocratic leaders. But it is the American people that elected Donald Trump as their president, and I think the choice of millions of Americans should be respected.

Ismayilova’s logic is quite simple: she is looking for the Azerbaijani trace everywhere and in everything from clashes between the Turkish pro-government forces and Fehtullah Gulen supporters to incidents in the remotest areas of the world. However ridiculous it may sound, even the dismissal of a journalist in Turkey, someone’s failure to broadcast his programme via Turksat satellite are explained by an “Erdogan-Aliyev agreement”.

The aggressor Armenia and the Armenian lobby are conducting a similar anti-Azerbaijani misinformation campaign. It is thought-provoking. If OCCRP investigates Ismayilova’s links in this regard and defines the mechanisms of the emergence of the ordered material in the media, it will make a significant contribution to ensuring the independent activity of journalists.

Is there no free media in Azerbaijan?

If an Azerbaijani investigative reporter is really unable to publish in the media, then how does Ismayilova publish her numerous articles about the president of Azerbaijan and his family? How can it be that in a country where there are hundreds of newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels, and internet resources, there is no free media?

The Azerbaijani media does not abstain from criticism, it freely voices its opinion about both officials and the head of state because it is not prohibited by the law and because in Aliyev’s view a journalist cannot face investigation for what he or she writes. He openly expressed this opinion in 2009, and no journalist has been investigated for his or her professional activity in Azerbaijan ever since.

READ MORE: Double standards – Do all journalist lives matter?

By writing this article I do not mean to defend the Aliyev government. I do not claim that there is no corruption, that there are no unjust court verdicts and that journalists do not face challenges in Azerbaijan. But show me a country which does not have these problems. I just cannot tolerate such prejudiced attacks against my country, which is trying to stand on its own feet, prove itself and introduce itself to the world. And I cannot tolerate when the media is made an instrument for such attacks.

Targeting governments and states, portraying the authorities and the media as antagonists in the interests of certain groups is not independent journalism. As the media aspires to be independent and wants to get rid of the influence of government circles, it should be able to resist different forces that want to take control of it. Otherwise, the media will never be independent.

Azer Hasret is an Azerbaijani journalist based in Baku with more than 20 years of experience. He writes in English, Russian, Turkish and Azerbaijani languages. His work focuses on human rights, social and political developments, the media and corruption. He is a member of the International Press Institute and a Founder of its Azerbaijan National Committee. Since 2003 he has been a chairman of the Baku-based Central Asian and Southern Caucasus Freedom of Expression Network which won the International Press Institute’s Free Media Pioneer Award in 2004. He has served as a member of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Council between 2001 and 2005. He was among the founding board members of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and is a founding member of the Azerbaijan Press Council.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.