With one eye on the upcoming Eurovision contest and another on its reputation, Azerbaijan’s presidential administration on March 15 condemned the online appearance of a video purportedly depicting sexual activities involving investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova, a reporter for both RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org. Officials have vowed to carry out a thorough probe, but Ismailova tells EurasiaNet.org she has yet to be contacted by investigators.
In a statement, administration spokesperson Elnur Aslanov condemned the video "as a campaign of provocative forces attempting to break the stability in Azerbaijan, harm the country’s international image and cause tension and confusion in society." He went on to claim that law enforcement agencies "will do their utmost to expose and punish those standing behind this dirty act."
Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the presidential administration's Political and Public Policy Department, sounded a similar line, asserting that those who had violated Ismailova's constitutional right to privacy "must be brought to responsibility." Hasanov added that "relevant agencies are investigating the issue," the SIA news agency reported.
Contrary to official assertions, Ismailova told EurasiaNet.org that she has not received "a single phone call from investigators" after she initially contacted them on March 9 about a blackmail attempt. "I personally was not approached by any investigator for the materials" threatening blackmail,” she added.
Ismailova had been investigating possible senior official ties to a company involved in the make-over of Baku's National Flag Square, located near the concert venue for the Eurovision contest finals, to be held in May. She received photos and a letter on March 7 threatening her with "great embarrassment" if she did not give up her investigation.
The video, placed on a fake mirror site for the opposition Musavat Party (a site with which the party claims no connection), appears to be the end result of that March 7 threat. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders commented on March 15 that "[t]he fact that those behind this smear campaign were able to film the video shows that they have exceptional resources and are ready to stop at nothing."
Citing a March 13 article published in the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party's official newspaper that raised various charges against her, Ismailova believes that officials had some kind of connection to what she termed “the provocation.” Given that a host of international organizations, along with European Parliament MPs, are now condemning the campaign against Ismailova, she maintains that the government is intent on trying to “save … face.”
Presidential administration representatives were not available for comment.
As attention to the blackmail attempt becomes increasingly international in scope, the affair threatens to inflict further damage to the country's badly tattered civil rights record. Already, the incident is helping European human rights activists call attention to a Eurovision boycott initiative, The Guardian reported on March 15.
"The regime must realize that hosting glitzy events such as Eurovision won't mask the extent of the country's human rights violations," John Dalhuisen, deputy director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program, told the paper in reference to past Azerbaijani treatment of protesters.
At the same time, Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani blogger who was jailed after posting a video lampooning President Ilham Aliyev as a donkey, argued that Eurovision should proceed as planned. "Eurovision is an opportunity for the international community to focus on what is happening in Azerbaijan. The best way to understand is to come and see it," he told The Guardian.