For most, it seems an easy choice to make – to choose the truth above lies. Yet, it has become remarkably easy for the Azerbaijani authorities to censor truth.
ARTICLE 19’s 2014 report, ‘Azerbaijan: When the Truth becomes a Lie’, documented in detail the vicious attack on civil society meted out by the Azerbaijani authorities in 2014. Many other reports published since by international human rights organisations have further highlighted the problem.[*]
Meanwhile, as President Ilham Aliyev continues to claim abroad that fundamental freedoms are fully “provided for” in Azerbaijan, human rights defenders, NGO leaders, youth activists, social media activists, bloggers and journalists have been silenced by attack, arbitrary arrest, smear campaigns or being forced into exile or hiding. More than 80 political prisoners face ongoing pressure to ‘repent’, while their families and colleagues are frequently threatened. The authorities have done everything in their power to shut down independent media outlets, while local NGOs, and branches of international NGOs have been paralysed through limits on their ability to operate financially.
In short – over the last year, critical voices have been effectively removed from public life in Azerbaijan. Throughout, President Aliyev has maintained his country’s commitment to democratic values.
Azerbaijan’s banning of international human rights organisations and media outlets from reporting on the inaugural European Games – currently taking place in Baku – demonstrates the government’s intention to use such event as a glossy PR facade, covering the systemic erosion of its people’s basic freedoms.
Such steps constitute a clear and unacceptable attack on freedom of expression. These are not the actions of a country upholding its international commitments to human rights. Rather they are those of a country that is actively creating an alternative reality – one where truths readily become lies – and more worryingly still, lies become truths.
Last week, Khadija Ismayilova – an investigative journalist noted for uncovering high level corruption, who has been in pre-trial detention since December 2014 – wrote an open letter from prison to mark the opening of the European Games, in which she wrote ‘The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis.’ She continued: ‘Azerbaijan’s best and brightest have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games… they didn’t want you to see or hear us and our inconvenient truths.’
The Azerbaijani state media reproduced the letter with false translation, totally subverting Khadija’s original words. Verging on farcical, the letter spoke of Khadija’s ongoing campaign to humiliate the Azerbaijani government, with the passage quoted above rendered as ‘Azerbaijan’s worst and most villain (sic) have been locked up, tucked away for the European Games. They didn’t want to see our crimes or hear our inconvenient lies.’
This is how easy it is for the Azerbaijani government to turn a truth into a lie. The time for inconvenient truths is now.
The UN Human Rights Council must insist that Azerbaijan upholds its human rights commitments, including by releasing political prisoners immediately.
This blog is based on an ARTICLE 19 statement made on 16 June 2015 at Azerbaijan: The Repressive Side of the European Olympics, an event organised at the UN Human Rights Council by Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights Watch and People in Need, and co-sponsored by ARTICLE 19, among others.
Azerbaijan: The repression games: The voices you won’t hear at the first European Games, Amnesty International (June 2015) https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur55/1732/2015/en/
Breaking point in Azerbaijan: Promotion and glamour abroad, Repression and imprisonment at home, Human Rights House Foundation and Freedom Now (May 2015) http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/20947.html