“There is a great problem with freedom of speech in Azerbaijan”, says Leyla who experienced this lack of freedom of speech herself. She was arrested after openly criticizing the organization of the European Games in Azerbaijan in 2015. Layla was accused of treason, abuse of power and fraud. Without any evidence against her, she was sentenced to prison for more than eight years. Her husband, Arif Yunus, was also charged with fraud and treason, but he was placed under house arrest. He was sent to prison after he gave interviews about Leyla's situation.
In prison both Leyla and Arif where tortured. But only Leyla decided to tell her lawyer who published all the evidence and managed to open an investigation. “The case went to court, but two of my lawyers lost their job”, Leyla tells us. She and her husband were released from prison earlier, due to health problems. They fled their country to come to the Netherlands in April 2016.
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Disturbing media situation
“Our government is afraid of freedom of speech. Everything is prohibited today. When we write something critical in newspapers or on the internet, we get arrested for doing so.” About twenty years ago it was possible to protest in public. Back then there used to be large gatherings. “But now it's not possible anymore, a lot of journalists and bloggers who write critical articles about problems in Azerbaijan are sent to court or prison”, says Layla.
The only independent newspaper
Currently, there is a great pressure on journalists who work at Azadliq, an independent Azerbaijani newspaper created in 1990. “The word Azadliq means freedom in Azerbaijani”, explains Leyla. This newspaper still exists, but the chief editor Ganimat Zahid was arrested and in prison for a couple of years. When he was released, he moved abroad.
Until 2014 there were two independent news agencies who sold the newspapers, but now there is only one. Almost all of the newspapers, journals and magazines are sold by the governmental news agency. “The governmental news agency does not support Azadliq financially by holding back money. So they are struggling with printing the newspaper”, says Layla. Most of the media in Azerbaijan are payed by the government and other income flows are not accepted. “The financial situation of Azadliq is horrible nowadays. Because you cannot sell your newspaper yourself”, Leyla continues. “This is an important side of how the Azerbaijani government put pressure on media organizations in this country”, she explains to us. She wonders if this independent newspaper could publish anything next year.
Imprisoned journalists and bloggers
Not only newspaper journalists are under a lot of pressure, but bloggers as well. Layla: “Young people who create their own website for example, but also who post their ideas on Facebook. If they write critical articles about the issues in Azerbaijan, they can get arrested or imprisoned.” The printed newspapers are not so popular to them anymore. Social media and the internet are growing in popularity. “There was a seventeen year old Azerbaijani boy who wrote something critical about the Olympic Games in Azerbaijan in 2015. He was arrested and imprisoned for three years before being released.”
The list of journalists and bloggers who are imprisoned becomes longer. “Every week they and even their relatives get arrested. Especially when they flee abroad. These journalists and bloggers are imprisoned for years, without any chance of liberty”, says Leyla whilst showing her concerns.
Support freedom of speech
Leyla tells us: “It is very important that the real information about Azerbaijan will be generally known. This means giving a voice to all the people who believe and stand for freedom of speech. It is also necessary to support the civil society now-a-days, instead of the dictatorship. Other countries I would request to support freedom of speech in Azerbaijan and support the people who struggle for rule of law in this country.”
“The government is afraid of our critical articles and reports. Therefor we have no freedom of speech. We just have to stay silent and keep our views to ourselves. But media workers cannot work without independent media.” (Leyla Yunus)