Azerbaijan: ECHR ruling confirms government failing to protect journalists from abuse

Today the European Court of Human Rights gave its decision in the case of Khadija Ismayilova, ruling unanimously that Azerbaijan has violated her right to private and family life and to freedom of expression. The Azerbaijani authorities failed to conduct an effective investigation into the publication of covertly filmed videos depicting Ismayilova’s intimate life, and disclosed her private information in a report on the status of that investigation. Ismayilova is an acclaimed investigative journalist, who has been threatened and intimidated in various ways since she began reporting critically on the Government.

“We welcome the Court’s finding that the Government of Azerbaijan violated Ismayilova’s right to private and family life and to freedom of expression by not effectively investigating these serious breaches of her privacy. We reiterate our call on the Azerbaijani authorities to stop the politically motivated persecution of Ismayilova and other critical journalists and to create an enabling environment instead, and on the international community to continue to hold the Government of Azerbaijan accountable for its numerous human rights violations,” said Tom Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

Over the years, Ismayilova’s reporting has uncovered corruption at the highest echelons of the Azerbaijani regime. Numerous efforts have been made to silence her, from blackmail to public shaming, accusations of espionage, judicial persecution and arbitrary imprisonment. She has been awarded with the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2016 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to press freedom particularly in the face of dangerous circumstances, and she has also received the Right Livelihood Award, Global Shining Light Award, the German ZEIT Foundation Award, the International Women’s Media Federation’s Courage Award and the PEN America Press Freedom Award, among others.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes in particular the Court’s finding that the dissemination of the videos and related articles in pro-government newspapers, and the significant flaws in the investigation and lack of remedies in this regard, violated Ismayilova’s right to freedom of expression. In its judgment, the Court emphasises that given the general state of freedom of expression in the country and given the particular circumstances of the case, in which it was unable to discern a plausible motive for the criminal acts other than Ismayilova’s work as a journalist, the threat of public humiliation and invasion of privacy that occurred were either linked to Ismayilova’s reporting or should have been treated as such. Accordingly, the Azerbaijani authorities were required to undertake measures with a view to protecting Ismayilova’s right to journalistic freedom of expression and creating an environment protective of journalism. With this judgment, that recognises the harmful impact of harassment by invasion of journalists’ privacy on their right to freedom of expression and links this with a positive obligation on the State to protect journalists, the European Court takes a timely and welcome stance that serves to advance the safety of journalists and the freedom of the press.

Furthermore, while the Court noted that it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that State agents were behind the crimes, as had been alleged by Ismayilova, it found that the wholly ineffective nature of the investigation, in light of the serious nature of the crimes, gave rise to a violation of the right to private and family life, as did the authorities’ disclosure of Ismayilova’s private details in a report concerning the investigation.

ARTICLE 19 urges the Azerbaijani government to act on the court’s decision and ensure journalists are better protected from abuse and harassment, and able to exercise their journalistic freedom of expression in an enabling environment.