The Fourth Estate + Deadly Risk

The Fourth Estate + Deadly Risk

By Lorena O'Neil

RFE/RL Azerbaijani service correspondent Khadija Ismayilova accepting the 2012 "Courage in Journalism" award from the International Women's Media Foundation. Behind Ismayilova is Lesley Stahl, CBS News journalist and presenter of the award. The ceremony took place in New York on October 24, 2012. Photo: IWMF/Stan Honda
SourceIWMF/Stan Honda


This Azerbaijani investigative journalist surrenders her privacy and safety in order to speak truth to power. What have you done today?

By Lorena O'Neil

Khadija Ismayilova walks around Azerbaijan with a bodyguard. She’s pitched a tent in her own apartment to avoid video cameras. She says pro-government newspapers are smearing not only her own character but her family’s as well.

Sound paranoid? Maybe, if you didn’t know the whole story.

Ismayilova is a 37-year-old radio host who works for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, a news agency operating in countries with limited press freedom. She also does work with Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Her strong and determined personality has made her popular in Azerbaijan, despite the fact the government has banned Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, along with BBC and Voice of America, from the country’s FM waves. Her audience — which number in the tens of thousands — tunes in for 90 minutes, five days a week, on the Internet or satellite radio, to hear her play devil’s advocate against Azerbaijan’s top politicians. She grills them with questions so tough that other guests often request a different interviewer when scheduling their appearances.

An audience of tens of thousands tunes in for 90 minutes, five days a week, to hear her play devil’s advocate against Azerbaijan’s top politicians.

In a country that is ranked in the top 10 for worst record of jailing journalists, Ismayilova perseveres despite very personal attacks. Her investigative reports looking into government corruption have won awards in Germany, Brazil and the U.S. She’s the first person from Azerbaijan to win the Courage in Journalism Award, and the Atlantic named her in its annual list of Brave Thinkers for 2012.

But when she took on President Ilham Aliyev’s family, things got serious. As in sex-tape serious.

Wife on left and President on right, with Azerbaijan flag in red and green in foreground

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, after casting their ballots 

Source Corbis

On March 7, 2012, Ismayilova received an anonymous letter that read: “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.” It accompanied very intimate photos of her taken inside her home. A week later, a video of her and her boyfriend in bed surfaced on the Internet.

“I’m not going to get silenced,” she says in a Skype interview. When Ismayilova saw the letter and photographs, “The first thing I thought was I have to make sure that I continue doing everything that I am doing.” And she did. Two or three hours after receiving the package, she was on the air, continuing with her scheduled show. Afterward she spoke with her lawyer and posted a statement on Facebook, revealing what had happened.

Since the incident, she and her boyfriend have split. “This was a price to pay,” she says. ”I can risk my own privacy, but I cannot risk other people’s privacy.”

Azeri journalists are often blackmailed, arrested on fake charges, physically assaulted and even assassinated.

Sadly, the sex tape blackmail falls in line with the abuse faced by many journalists in Azerbaijan. So much so that Ismayilova put up a tent in her apartment to block hidden cameras, but she said it got too hot inside so she stopped using it. One journalist I spoke with heaped praise on Ismayilova for her bravery and excellent reporting skills but asked that her name not be printed for fear of backlash, as she works in Azerbaijan often.

A few years before Ismayilova’s intimate relations were posted on the Internet, an opposition editor’s sex tape was broadcast on Azeri television, and another opposition reporter was filmed masturbating in his hotel room. Unlike Ismayilova, both have ceased investigative reporting. Azeri journalists are often blackmailed, arrested on fake charges, physically assaulted and even assassinated.

Man holding camera lying on his left side with his right arm clenching his stomach. People are around him trying to help

Reporters crowd around Farahim Ibrahimoglu, a journalist at Yeni Musavat newspaper who was reportedly beaten by police during a political rally. 

Source Getty

Reporter Elmar Huseynov was shot dead in front of his house in 2005. This particular death, for Ismayilova, hit close to home. “I felt kind of responsible,” she says. At the time, she says, Huseynov was the only reporter investigating “highest-level corruption” and that if more people had been doing so, perhaps his killers would have thought twice before attacking him. His death was one of the inspirations for her to start delving into investigative reporting at the governmental level.

Since the sex tape incident, Ismayilova has received multiple threats, including new video footage released in August. Pro-government newspapers also use smear campaigns to talk about not only Ismayilova but her family. The U.S. Embassy in Baku condemned the harassment. Azerbaijan is conservative, and honor killings still occur there, so these attacks hold the potential for real danger for Ismayilova, as an unmarried woman engaging in sexual activity. She says she doesn’t always hire a bodyguard, only when the threats get very serious. ”His presence is not even to prevent something; it’s mostly for having a witness if something happens.”

She’s one of those journalists who always give you a headache, but in the end you always know that it’s a good headache.

– Ismayilova’s boss, Kenan Aliyev

Ismayilova says she was pleasantly surprised by how many people in Azerbaijan, even conservatives, have supported her throughout these personal attacks. When she was arrested at an anti-government rally last January and sentenced to community service, a number of activists — journalists and fans — pledged to sweep the streets alongside her. The government then tried to change her sentencing to indoor work, but she refused because many activists have reportedly been beaten while doing indoor service. After the second video was released in August, journalists protested the release in Baku, and many were arrested.

”I’ve had many sleepless nights because of her,” says her Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe boss, Kenan Aliyev. ”She’s very difficult but she’s extraordinary. She’s one of those journalists who always give you a headache, but in the end you always know that it’s a good headache. It’s always rewarding. Something you can be proud of. She never writes anything which is not based on fact.”

Where does her bravery and love of democracy come from? Ismayilova credits her father, who was a minister of the government and member of Soviet parliament in Azerbaijan. During the country’s fight for independence, Ismayilova and her sisters stood outside parliament demanding the members’ resignation, as their father sat inside.

Color photo of Rushana's right profile, with phone to her right ear. The portrait is behind her above her head

Rushana Huseynova, a founder and editor of Monitor

Source Ursula Hyzy/Getty

“He gave me the freedom to become who I am. We had different views in the family, but we had enough democracy in the family to express our opinions.”

Despite the recent increase in threats, Ismayilova is carrying on, business as usual. On Jan. 16, she published a radio story about President Aliyev’s daughter’s financial business dealings in the Czech Republic. She also donated the award money she recently won to an imprisoned Azerbaijan editor. And she’s still using a bodyguard.

Under constant threat of danger, why doesn’t Ismayilova just leave and report from abroad?

”First of all, I don’t want to give up,” she says emphatically. ”Someone needs to do something to stop it.” She believes the government is radicalizing people because “when you don’t find justice in the court, people rely on God.” She is concerned about the combination of enormous oil wealth, corruption and injustice in wealth distribution in the country. ”People are actually finding a refuge in religion, and it’s because the civic institutions are failing in the country. So my country now looks like Iran before the Islamic revolution.”

She believes that if she were to flee, she wouldn’t be happy. “You can’t feel happy [on] your own when people who you know, people who speak the same language as you do, people who are related to you, people who studied in the same school are suffering. How can you be happy [on] your own? It’s impossible.”