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Salacious video defames journalist critical of Azerbaijani government

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Tue March 20, 2012
Radio host Khadija Ismayilova has been highly critical of the Azerbaijani government.
Radio host Khadija Ismayilova has been highly critical of the Azerbaijani government.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An investigative journalist in Azerbaijan is under fire for a sexually explicit video
  • The video was recorded via hidden camera and posted online to defame her
  • Khadija Ismayilova believes the government is behind the smear campaign
  • The government denies this and has blamed it on 'subversive forces'

(CNN) -- A compromising video has appeared on the Internet of an investigative journalist who has been extensively reporting on government corruption in Azerbaijan.

Khadija Ismayilova, a radio talk show host, is afraid the sexually explicit images could ignite religious rage against her in the conservative country.

The video of her and her boyfriend was recorded via a hidden camera in her bedroom and then posted anonymously on a website imitating the homepage of the New Equality Party, a rival of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party.

Social mores in the Muslim society are not as strict as they are in neighboring Iran, Ismayilova says, but they're "similar to rural Turkey." Honor killings for behavior outside of accepted morals are a reality in Azerbaijan.

The video surfaced a week after Ismayilova received a threatening letter by mail "containing photos of a personal nature," according to a news release from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a democracy advocacy organization that broadcasts her shows and publishes articles that she writes.

"I received a package with pictures suggesting I have a sexual life," Ismayilova said, "and the note saying: 'You whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.' "

People in high places could have reason to be angry with Ismayilova for her reporting. She has written articles implying that the daughters of President Ilham Aliyev could have a secret ownership stake in Azerfon, the country's major mobile telecom company. She has also connected the president's family to the ownership of a bank and alleged that the relationship was used for shady dealings.

Presidential spokesman Elnur Aslanov declined to comment on Ismayilova's stories, but he condemned the video a day after it surfaced, blaming it on "subversive forces who try to violate the stability in Azerbaijan."

Aslanov also said Thursday that authorities "will make all efforts to identify and punish the persons who are behind this dirty action."

Ismayilova, however, calls the spokesman's statements "absolutely insincere ... absolutely outrageous." She believes that the government is punishing her for her stories.

After all, the ruling party has raked her over the coals in print, she said, tying her ethnic background to Armenia.

Tensions run high between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed breakaway region Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as Armenia's military occupation of adjacent Azerbaijani territory. Creating the impression that Ismayilova is connected to Armenia can easily stoke additional passions against her with the Azerbaijani public.

"They've been accusing me of working for the enemies of the country," she said.

One day before the contentious video of Ismayilova surfaced, an article appeared on a pro-government news website, again bringing up questions about her ethnic background. It also attacked her private life: "Khadija is a permanent resident of Baku's expensive bars and clubs. She never hid her affection for alcohol and fast living. She often makes fun of the upbringing and values of Azerbaijani women."

A day after the video appeared, a pro-government newspaper called Iki Sahil wrote, "In her articles very often Khadija would say 'give me a freedom' and it looks like she got enough 'freedom' now," according to Radio Liberty's translation. The article went on to describe salacious details of the video and pointed out where it could be found on the Internet.

The video has triggered support for Ismayilova from human rights activists but also from an unlikely group. Religious conservatives, who are usually among her critics, have come to her aid.

The elders in the conservative town of Nardaran, while pointing out that they often disagree with Ismayilova, said in a statement that they "strongly deplore this blackmail against Khadija and demand it stop."

Ismayilova believes that the support from mosque communities and other conservatives "could have saved my life."

Journalist advocacy groups across the world have also called on the personal attacks to stop. "Azerbaijan must halt smear campaign against reporter," read a news release from the Committee to Protect Journalists on the day the video appeared. Reporters Without Borders opened its reaction statement with the word "despicable."

They say this has happened before.

"Journalists in Azerbaijan are frequently subjected to smear or intimidation campaigns as punitive action and are sometimes forced to leave the country," the journalism group said, citing its own research.

Nina Ognianova, the committee's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said Azerbaijan is one of the most authoritarian countries she has covered.

"In 2009, it was the leading jailor of journalists in the region, with 11 behind bars," she said.

She recalled a similar case to Ismayilova's, one that involved sexual claims being spread about an independent journalist. The journalist was portrayed by pro-government media as being homosexual.

"The labeling put the journalist in peril," Ognianova said. "He almost died in a stabbing attack, and someone tried to push him under a train."

The government, however, disputes accusations that it represses journalism.

"Azerbaijan is an open democratic state with free media," said presidential spokesman Aslanov, who is also head of the country's Political Analysis and Information Department.

The Aliyev family has held on to power for nearly four decades. The current president's father, Heydar Aliyev, was in office for almost 30 years before he died. The current president ascended to the office in a landslide election that was boycotted by opposition parties and criticized as below standards by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections internationally.

The former Soviet republic has recently raised its profile on the international stage. It was elected to the U.N. Security Council in October and has put in a bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

But Transparency International, which tracks the perception of corruption in countries around the world, ranks Azerbaijan slightly worse than Pakistan, on a level with Belarus and Nigeria. It used to be lower.

In May, Azerbaijan will host the Eurovision Song Contest, with participants coming from Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. Journalists from about 40 countries are also expected, which will mean increased global press exposure.

Azerbaijan has a reputation at stake and seems to respond to intense, constant international pressure -- "but with a lot of resistance," Ognianova said.

"The country has become more sophisticated in their repression of critical voices," she said. "The government tactics of sneaky punching in the gut has happened before."

The website featuring the Ismayilova video was traced back to a Web hosting company based in Texas called HostGator. CNN contacted the company to ask about who posted the website with the video. Despite multiple requests, a customer service representative refused to connect CNN with its press office or give out its telephone number. An e-mail to multiple recipients at the company remains unanswered.

Ismayilova says that although she is now in danger, she wants her story told.

"It needs to be made public," she said. "It needs to be turned to embarrassment for those who are doing it."

On her Facebook account after receiving the initial photos, she wrote, "I am convinced and determined that I can withstand any blackmail campaign against me."

At that time, she had sent an official letter to the prosecutor's office, requesting an investigation. She received no response.

"They never called me," she said. "They never asked for additional materials. They never asked for the envelope."

On Friday, two days after the video appeared, the prosecutor's office called her to question her about her request. Officials agreed to open a criminal case on charges of violation of privacy, but she also had asked for an investigation into her allegation about efforts to hinder her work as a journalist and is still awaiting a response.

The same day, Ismayilova to a gathering of civic society groups supporting her, and Radio Free Europe streamed it live on its home page. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty receives funding from the U.S. government to practice critical journalism in countries where it is perceived to be less free.

Also Friday, the explicit Ismayilova video disappeared from view in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"It's still available in Azerbaijan, but not in the Czech Republic," said Kenan Aliyev, who runs Radio Liberty's Azerbaijani service from Prague. "They are targeting Azerbaijan."

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