Sophia Vahanvaty: How did you get involved with journalism?
Khadija Ismayilova: I started as a translator for a newspaper back in 1997, and whenever they were short on reporters, they sent me. Soon I went from doing part-time reporting to being a full-time reporter and then I became editor. One day I realized that this is the only work I wanted to pursue.
In 2005 my colleague, Elmar Huseynov, was assassinated. I realized that he was killed because he was the only one naming and shaming the ruling family for corruption. I personally felt guilty for that assassination, so I decided to learn the skills of investigative reporting and to focus on corruption at a high level. I’m known for investigating the personal wealth of the highest level officials in Azerbaijan, including the president and his family members, and for being subject to harassment for doing that.
SV: What does the press community look like in Azerbaijan?
KI: All TV channels are pro-government. All the newspapers that used to be opposition or independent ceased to exist. The last opposition newspaper stopped publication in 2016. Those who criticize the president, his family members, or the police are subject to harsh retaliation. You are free to express your opinion on social media but you will not be free after that. Very few journalism organizations are operating from inside the country because they are under constant harassment, as well. They mostly republish stories because the risk is too great. There are reporters who work for the media organizations in exile or for international media like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but it’s underground work; you cannot even carry the press card of that organization.
SV: How do you build trust with sources when the stakes are this high?
KI: My main sources are the documents. I try mostly to put the burden of proof on documents rather than risking people who would give me interviews or provide information. There are other risks as well—I had several occasions when I was provided false information that was very tempting to publish. But I’m glad that I never used those documents because I would have been discredited. You have to be very careful who you talk to. It’s a risk both ways.
SV: The government responded to your reporting with several laws that made transparency even harder to attain. Has it been more challenging since then to get access to documents?
KI: It has, but there is always a way. Corruption has become very international—the presidential family has too much money to be limited to only one country, so they invest in other countries. So we use access to databases in other countries to find out about our corrupt officials.
SV: What has been the international response to your work and your being imprisoned for over a year?
KI: When it was difficult, I always got a lot of support from local colleagues—a lot of great journalists are still working in the country and they are still trying to convey knowledge. But it’s unfortunate that we journalists suddenly become the heroes of the articles. It should not be like that. The main focus should be the corruption investigations and the impunity, not me. Not the jail term.
We journalists, our hands are tied. There should be more support mechanisms like advocacy, naming and shaming, pointing fingers, and sanctioning on an international level that would help to bring more justice and then I think all the sacrifices we make to convey the message and tell the truth would not be in vain.
SV: What are the biggest mistakes that foreign media make in covering Azerbaijan?
KI: Some people think that societies like Azerbaijan are hopeless because it’s our fate to be undemocratic, to be corrupt—it’s something we’re destined to live. But that’s not true. This country is also full of people who do not steal, who do not lie, and who are ready to tolerate other opinions. We need the world to learn a little bit more about the people of this country and what they want and whether or not they are happy with the unfortunate circumstances they are caught in. It’s a misperception that Azerbaijan is just an oil-rich, corrupt, Muslim country. That’s what people think but that’s not the whole story.
Khadija Ismayilova is an investigative journalist and a member of the global Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Her investigations of the corruption of the Azerbaijani president’s family earned her the prestigious Right Livelihood Award in 2017.
Sophia Vahanvaty is a freshman at Stanford University and an administrative and research assistant at American Purpose.
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