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Azeri Journalist Alleges Blackmail Attempt

Azeri Journalist Alleges Blackmail Attempt

Khadija Ismayilova (credit: RFE/RL, Courtesy Image)

Azerbaijan’s best-known journalist (who also happens to be Azerbaijan’s best journalist, period) alleged yesterday that she is being victimized in a blackmail attempt. Khadija Ismayilova, who writes for a number of publications and hosts the popular “After Work” radio show for RFE/RL’s Baku bureau, made the allegations after receiving a letter containing photographs of a very personal and “intimate” nature.

According to Khadija, the envelope was postmarked in Moscow, and contained not only embarrassing photographs, but a note which read, “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.”

I’ve actually suspected long before now that something like this would happen to Khadija, given her tireless investigative journalism, which has included exposés of corruption at the very highest level of Azerbaijan’s government.

And her efforts have been noticed – by international organizations such as the German ZEIT Foundation, which recognized Khadija earlier this year, and Azerbaijan’s ruling family.

In a revealing exchange between President Aliyev and former US diplomat Matthew Bryza, the president complained bitterly to Bryza in 2008 about the RFE’s tone toward his administration in general and Khadija in particular:

“The President said that Radio Liberty has selected people only from the opposition to work in their bureau here. He said that the local editor Khadija Ismayilova is a long-time opposition activist who considers herself to be an enemy of the government.”

Dirty tactics against perceived opponents, as Khadija herself has pointed out in the last 24 hours, are not at all unusual in Azerbaijan, where honest, independent journalism is an exceedingly hazardous undertaking. Readers not aware of modern Azerbaijan’s distinction in this area might familiarize themselves with the murder of opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov in 2005 or the killing of Rafiq Tagi last year, or prosecutions of journalists such as Sakit Zahidov and Eynullah Fatullayev.

While the mysterious blackmail letter sent to Khadija was apparently from Moscow and not Baku, this is surely beside the point. The intent, if the letter is what Khadija claims it to be, is to silence one of Azerbaijan’s most courageous voices.

Authoritarian governments and their allies often resort to this sort of crude tactic to send a chilling message to political opponents and journalists. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, has seen the release of a number of explicit, sexually-oriented videos of people such as Russian Newsweek editor Mikhail Fishman and satirist Viktor Shenderovich. Both men appeared on separate tapes with the same woman, who had managed by 2010 to entrap at least six opposition figures in this way. Fishman appeared on the tape to be using cocaine while enjoying the company of the scantily-clad young woman, since then identified as Ekaterina Gerasimova.

Back in Azerbaijan, Lider TV (owned by a cousin of President Aliyev) aired a similar tape last year of two opposition activists engaged in compromising sexual behavior, coincidentally during Azerbaijan’s “Arab Spring” unrest.

And in late 2010, Lider broadcast video tape of opposition newspaper editor Azer Ahmedov having graphic sex with someone other than his wife. Incredibly, Lider hyped the tape and urged viewers to watch the uncensored segment, which they referred to as “The Naked Truth of the Opposition,” on its “Seda” news program.

In a bizarre bit of political analysis, the announcer ponderously told viewers that the video was a result of “asymmetric policy from the West,” adding that “we have to show this to the Western world, especially to France, so they know that their methods are very close to our opposition.”

Yes, I know that’s a bagful of non sequiturs, but it’s also a typical example of the multi-year slander campaign against opposition parties that has rendered them a mute and ineffective force.

And now it’s Khadija’s turn. Never mind that she has a right to privacy, and never mind that she has already had to endure a number of hurtful insults over the years from a variety of sources.

Robert Coalson reports for RFE/RL that “at least two newspapers in Azerbaijan” are in possession of the photos. Mr Coalson does not say how they obtained the photos, but added at press time that “no one has published them.”

Inshalla, no one will.



Below is Khadija’s public statement on this incident, translated into English and available at

“On March 7 I received a letter to my home address with threats and blackmail. It includes some photos of intimate character and a threat.

It says if I don’t stop working I will be hugely embarrassed. This threat is not a surprise for me. I have been doing investigative journalism for a long time. My investigation included the secret business of president Ilham Aliyev’s family and documented the facts of corruption on the highest level, disclosed the offshore businesses of members of the ruling family.

Currently I am working on several investigative reports. I have sent inquires to the Government offices about businesses of ruling family.

For a long time my journalistic activity has been the source of concern for the government . I have been a subject of attacks and slander in pro-government newspapers. I have been absurdly accused of having Armenian relatives and working for foreign intelligence.

Till now many of my colleagues have been subjected to blackmailed with discrediting information and I have been expecting new dirty blackmailing moves from people who are stealing the public money. I was envisioning this and was ready to face it. After receiving a letter today I am convinced and determined that I can withstand any blackmail campaign against me. I will continue my professional activity and work. Because the journalist that respect its profession can not act otherwise.

I would like to repeat that this is not the first time that these acts of blackmail have been used against fellow journalists. The motives of these acts are very well know to public. It is done to silence people who are outspoken. There are a serious crimes behind these acts.

I may face more of these disgusting and dangerous steps against me. The Government must investigate these events. Taken into account the nature of my investigations and the source of criticism and attacks against me, I hope the president will carry responsibility for what may happen and provide protection for my security.

Khadija Ismayil.”


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Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.