One small step: The release of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova

Azerbaijan government responds to global condemnation of its detention of journalists, rights activists and political opponents

A month ago, at a ceremony in Helsinki to mark World Press Freedom Day, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was honoured by Unesco for her contribution to journalism. Implicitly, though not, for reasons that are unclear, explicitly, Unesco at the time joined many other international organisations in calling on the Azerbaijan government for her immediate release from the arbitrary detention in which she had been held since 2014.

Last week the government acceded and released Ismayilova whose detention, with those of other journalists and civil society activists, had become an embarrassing symbol of her country’s increasingly autocratic rule.

Her offence, notionally embezzlement and tax evasion, had been to investigate and write about the business dealings and human rights abuses of President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled and, with his family, plundered the wealth of the oil-rich nation since 2003 .

Ismayilova, who worked for US-funded Radio Free Europe, pledged to continue both her work as a journalist and to fight to clear her name.


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called on the Azeri authorities, which released 148 prisoners including journalists, rights activists and political opponents in March, to drop all remaining charges against Ismayilova and release the remaining imprisoned journalists.

Few imagine, however, that these releases are more than window-dressing or signal a genuine or thorough conversion to democratic values on the part of the regime.

Indeed, earnest of its real intentions, the day after Ismayilova was released, the Azeris joined South Africa, Russia, China, Pakistan and Sudan, among others, in blocking consultative status at the United Nations for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom watchdog group.

The decision at a credentials committee meeting dominated by states with extremely dubious press freedom records, was described by US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power as "outrageous". Azerbaijan, Iran, China and Cuba are on the CPJ's list of the 10 most-censored countries.