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For Azerbaijani Journalists Living In Georgia, Their Safe Haven Doesn't Feel So Safe Anymore

Azerbaijani activists, journalists in Tbilisi (compilation)
Azerbaijani activists, journalists in Tbilisi (compilation)

TBILISI -- Out with friends at a bar in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in January, Elmaddin Shamilzade said he was approached by a group of men.

Shamilzade, a reporter who fled to Georgia to escape the harassment he said he faced for his independent journalism back home in Azerbaijan, said he was lured outside by one of the men who had a "Baku accent."

Things quickly escalated, Shamilzade told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "He took out a knife and demanded money from me. My friend came out, and he suddenly ran away," he recalled.

Shamilzade is convinced it wasn't a random attack. He and other journalists who fled to Georgia from Azerbaijan to escape persecution for their work fear that the safety they sought here is evaporating. Several complain of being harassed, including beatings, and they suspect elements linked to Azerbaijani security forces of involvement.

For independent journalists and media, Azerbaijan is not a particularly welcoming place. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog ranks Azerbaijan 151st of 180 countries in its latest World Press Freedom Index. Late last year, several independent journalists were detained, including eight from Abzas Media, one of the few remaining independent news outlets inside Azerbaijan. Abzas is known for its coverage of corruption on its website and YouTube channel, including allegations that touch on the ruling family of President Ilham Aliyev.

Aliyev has ruled energy-rich Azerbaijan with little regard for democratic norms since 2003, when he took over as president from his father, Heydar. Azerbaijan is holding a snap presidential election on February 7, with Aliyev widely expected to win.

Threats, Harassment, And Imprisonment

For Shamilzade, who published his independent work on TikTok and Facebook, the decision to get out of Azerbaijan came shortly after he was arrested and beaten in June 2023 for covering local protests in Soyudlu, a village in western Azerbaijan where residents had protested against toxic waste from a gold mine operated by a British company. Reporters Without Borders noted that reporters were banned from covering the protests, which were often put down by police with violence.

Like Shamilzade, other Azerbaijani journalists who fled to Georgia told RFE/RL they were feeling less safe.

In Azerbaijan, Nurlan Gahramanli, a journalist and blogger who writes under the pen name Nurlan Libre, said he had faced threats, harassment, and imprisonment for spreading "forbidden content." But the recent wave of arrests launched in November 2023 prompted the 27-year-old Azerbaijani journalist to flee his homeland.

Police officers restrain a protester during a rally of journalists against a new media bill in front of the parliament building in Baku on December 28, 2021.
Police officers restrain a protester during a rally of journalists against a new media bill in front of the parliament building in Baku on December 28, 2021.

Teymur Karimov, the founder of Kanal 11, an independent news channel on YouTube where Libre also worked, was among those rounded up in the crackdown. When Karimov's arrest was officially announced by Azerbaijani authorities on December 12, 2023, Gahramanli was already in Georgia.

"I was informed that I would be the next person who would be arrested," Gahramanli told RFE/RL. And while Georgia has often proved a popular destination for fleeing Azerbaijani journalists, it's also proved a risky one as well.

In 2017, Afgan Mukhtarli was abducted in Tbilisi -- where he and his family had fled in 2014 -- and turned over to Azerbaijani authorities, who later charged him with crossing the border illegally and sentenced him to six years in prison, three of which he served before being freed in 2020.

Since that incident, Azerbaijani reporters in exile in Georgia have not felt as safe. According to Gahramanli, Aliyev's government is doing its best to make sure members of the Azerbaijani opposition do not "gather in Tbilisi." "I don't feel safe in Tbilisi," he said, pointing to the recent bar incident involving Shamilzade.

It wasn't the only such attack.

In September 2023, journalist and activist Gurban Mammadli said he was beaten in a restaurant in Tbilisi. He claimed one of his attackers was an Azerbaijani national.

Gurban Mammadli
Gurban Mammadli

Mammadli, who first arrived in Tbilisi in 2017, told RFE/RL he is convinced the attack wasn't random. With a long history of political activism, Mammadli was a blogger and reporter for Kanal 13, an independent online news channel. The executive director of Kanal 13, Aziz Orujov, and Rufat Muradli, a host on the channel, were arrested in December 2023.

Mammadli's reporting and ties to independent media often landed him in trouble with the authorities in Azerbaijan, including a crackdown in 2014 on the independent Free Newspaper. "It was a very difficult period, just like now," Mammadli said. "I bought tickets and left for Georgia."

Media Under Fire

For years, experts and rights activists have warned about Azerbaijan's dire media landscape. Despite opposition from the few independent publications and journalists still operating in the country, as well as criticism from the West, Aliyev approved a new media law in February 2022. In its latest index, watchdog RSF wrote that there are "no independent television or radio broadcasts from inside the country, and all print newspapers with critical positions have been closed."

On January 24, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was established to promote democracy and human rights, voted to effectively suspend the body's Azerbaijani delegation, citing, among other things, the country's human rights violations and persecution of the opposition and media.

After he arrived in Tbilisi in 2017, Mammadli said he quickly connected with other Azerbaijani activists and journalists, including Mukhtarli, with whom he worked on journalistic investigations. Shortly after Mukhtarli's abduction that same year, Mammadli moved to Turkey for several years to study.

Up until the September 2023 incident at the Tbilisi restaurant, Mammadli said he felt relatively safe in the Georgian capital. The attack, however, not only led to a change in attitude but also prompted Mammadli to find a new apartment. Among his friends on Facebook, there is a strong suspicion that Azerbaijani security services have agents among the Azerbaijani businesses operating in Georgia, Mammadli said.

That suspicion leaves many Azerbaijanis wary about any contacts with compatriots in Georgia who they don't know, said Aytan Farhadova, an investigative reporter in Georgia who has cooperated with Abzas Media. "That's why I often just don't communicate with Azerbaijanis," Farhadova said.

International press freedom groups have demanded the release of the Abzas Media journalists, describing the arrests, which began in November 2023, as an attempt to silence their anti-corruption reporting.

Aytan Farhadova
Aytan Farhadova

Farhadova has been living in Georgia since 2019, fleeing Azerbaijan, she said, because it was "mentally difficult" there. "Not only because of the pressure. I was losing myself. The way we speak has changed…. We use code words for everything. We think that they are listening to us everywhere, watching us everywhere," Farhadova recounted, even saying that taxi receipts could be used by the authorities to track the movement of what it considered its opponents.

The early days in Tbilisi were difficult, Farhadova said, particularly finding a job. Few organizations were willing to hire an Azerbaijani journalist, she said, the fate of Mukhtarli serving as a warning to others.

Nurana Ashurova, who fled with her children to Georgia, has been fighting for the release of her husband, Samir Ashurov, a political activist who was detained in Baku in April 2022. The family had been deported that year from Germany, where their asylum request was denied. On returning to Baku, Ashurov was detained on a knife attack charge that he and his defenders say is bogus.

From Tbilisi, Ashurova has campaigned for his release, activities she said led to her being followed, including an incident in October 2023 at an open-air market in Marneuli, southern Georgia, where she lives. "At one point, I noticed that a man was following me…. He was getting closer, and I tried to take a picture of him, but he fled," she said.

Nurana Ashurova
Nurana Ashurova

Ashurova also received threats online, warning her not to meet with Avtandil Mammadov, a rights activist and founder of the Committee for the Protection of Victims of Cross-Border Persecution and Repression, which organized from Tbilisi protests in Baku to demand the release of Ashurova's husband.

For Mammadov, his work to free Ashurov and other activities on behalf of other victims of the Aliyev regime led to unwanted attention. "I noticed it even before Nurana [Ashurova's] arrival. But after her arrival, [the tracking] became clearer. In the last two years, I have been doing more work, I am more visible, and I engage in more public advocacy," explained Mammadov, who has been living in Georgia since 2017.

Mysterious Deaths

According to Mammadov, he often notices people suspiciously taking photos in public places or a person who was sitting next to him in a cafe later running into him on the street. "They never come into contact, but they always seem to let us know that they are following us," he said.

Avtandil Mammadov
Avtandil Mammadov

"The worries and anxieties of these people are very real," says Natia Tavberidze, a coordinator at Human Rights House Tbilisi, an NGO with offices in both Tbilisi and Baku. "We have the experience of the Mukhtarli case, where questions still remain unanswered and the investigation has not been finished. Also, the recent trend in Georgia has been to harass the local civil sector. Moreover, there is close cooperation between the two countries," said Tavberidze.

For opponents of the Aliyev regime, the recent deaths -- all ruled suicides -- of three activists, including Husein Bakikhanov in Tbilisi, have had a chilling effect. According to the Azerbaijani authorities, Bakikhanov, an opposition blogger who sought asylum in Georgia, jumped from the roof of the Rooms Hotel under unclear circumstances on July 14, 2021.

Just days earlier, on July 12, Bakikhanov published his final video on YouTube, filmed on Freedom Square in Tbilisi. In the video, he describes how he had been violently attacked earlier by a group whom he described as Azerbaijanis.

"I knew him personally. He thought he was in danger," said Mammadov. "I'm afraid that something similar might happen to me."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting in Tbilisi by Tornike Mandaria
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    Tornike Mandaria

    Tornike Mandaria has been working for RFE/RL's Georgian Service since 2019. He mostly covers issues of human rights, media, the environment, and politics in Georgia and the South Caucasus.

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