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February 25th 2015 print

John O’Sullivan

The Book Value of a Reporter’s Courage

A friend and brave colleague awaits trial in an Azerbaijani prison, the charges against her so patently ridiculous they would be laughable if a courageous reporter did not face the prospect of an extended stint behind bars. Her real crime? Daring to shine a light on the business dealings of her country's President and its First Family

azeri journoBelow is a letter from imprisoned Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova (left). Apparently written on February 6, it was smuggled from her Azerbaijan prison and published last week in the Washington Post. Ms. Ismayilova is a reporter and commentator for the Azerbaijani service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Frank Csongas, one of her former colleagues at RFERL (where I also worked for much of the last decade), e-mailed it to me in case I hadn’t seen it.

According to the Post, Ms. Ismayilova was a put in pre-trial detention for two months after being accused of inciting a colleague’s suicide. Additional charges have since been brought against her. It seems pretty clear that these charges are a punishment for her reports on the financial dealings of the Azeri President and his family. Without more ado, though, let’s read the letter:

Please forgive my long silence. I was put in solitary confinement after my last letter was passed through these prison bars and published. My cell was searched and all my notes, including lists of things I was requesting from home, were taken. I have not received these back. I guess there are many devoted readers of mine at the penitentiary. They are taking turns reading my notes. That is why it is taking them such a long time to return what they have taken from me.

I have not been allowed to see my family, either. The arbitrariness of the penitentiary system allows me two phone calls each week that I use to speak with my mother but, contrary to the law, denies her and my lawyer regular visits. I have access to very little information. At least I have books to keep me company. I am translating one of these — Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani — a novel about history and memory that is woven around the interlocking stories of three women imprisoned in Iran, and the people who support and are supported by them.

Maybe I will write a sequel to tell the stories of my five cellmates, and what their incarceration says about this country and its future. Among us we have created a family, a tiny ecosystem that gives us strength and helps us stay strong. My cellmates are also my new audience, that most precious thing that every journalist must have, even a journalist whom the government is trying to silence and pack away. I am no longer on the air, but inside these walls I’m connected to the struggles of Azeris in a more direct and personal way.

“Why am I here?” is a question that everyone in prison asks themselves, no matter the crime. Corruption is the reason I am in my prison, but the regime’s corruption, not mine. The only way to prove oppressive regimes wrong is to continue exposing corruption, and I have promised more investigations for 2015. Yes, there is a price to pay, but it is worth it! My arrest proves one more time that we must build a new reality where telling the truth will not require courage.

But what about the real crimes — the theft, the contempt for the law? What pushes people to commit these crimes?

In a country where unpunished crimes are at a record high and deeply rooted in all levels of government, there is a simple logic that prompts people to commit crimes. “If it is good, why can’t I do it?; if it is bad, why are they doing it?” And then the conclusion: “If they can do it, I’ll do it, too.” This is the mentality bred by a morally bankrupt regime that has turned my country’s justice system into a corrupt machine.

But the heart of the matter goes deeper than this. It is about power and greed, beginning with the president of the country down to the petty officials who showcase the most dramatic examples of corruption and impunity. This a country where money and power can cover up any crime, and where truth and deception have traded places. As a result, there are some 100 political prisoners behind bars in Azerbaijan. Think about the significance: In a very small, yet strategic and potentially volatile country bordering Russia and Iran, 100 of its best an d brightest, its most aware, active and internationally engaged citizens have been removed from public life for the crime of seeking decency and fair play.

We also constantly ask ourselves where are we going, and what will we get in the end? In Kurdakhani prison, where I am now, the usual answer is three-to-five or five-to-12 years in jail. But my answer is that there is no end. The fight between good and evil goes on, and the most important thing is that this fight should not end. If we can continue to reject the thinking that is imposed on us and believe that human dignity is not for sale, then we are the winners, and they, our jailers both inside and outside prison, are the losers.

Prison is not frightening for those trying to right a twisted scale, or for those who are subject to threats for doing the right thing. We see clearly what we must fight for.
Life is very complicated, but sometimes we get lucky and are offered a clear choice, between truth and lies. Choose truth and help us.

There are similar stories to be heard from all the countries covered by RFERL’s “footprint,” but Khadija’s story is special to me because I know her. When I was RFERL’s executive editor, she was introduced to me before we actually met by the report that when she was head of our Azeri bureau, she had told the police sent to close it down that they had no legal right to be there and that she wanted them out of it right away. And they had gone. One version–too good to check or to use, I decided–was that she had taken a sweeping brush and swept them out.

That story sounds very improbable if you have not met Khadija–and only too likely if you have. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, but she knows the meaning of a helluva lot of other words, and she deploys them to great and shaming effect. She is a gifted investigator, a powerful advocate-witness for human rights, and a force of nature — one of those people who possess a natural authority that the rest of us (including secret policemen, hostile crowds, her editorial “superiors”) feel impelled to acknowledge and all but impossible to resist.

When we did meet over dinner in Prague, I found myself taking critical, revisionist notes about both our coverage of the Caucasus and my opinions of US policy towards the region. Khadija never holds back. That’s why I fear she would throw the traditional inkwell at me for suggesting that by the standards of non-democratic regimes in the region and the wider EUrasia the Azeri regime could be worse. It’s dictatorial, corrupt, and unjust. But it is also pro-Western, pro-Israel, and resistant to the pressures of its powerful neighbour, Iran. Some of its oil wealth has been used to raise living standards and relieve poverty as well as to feather the nests of the powerful. Above all in this context, it allows limited media freedom, a right to travel. And as an ally of the West in an unstable region dominated by Putin’s Russia, it cares what we think.

What we think isn’t the Azeri government’s top concern, of course, but on the whole it would rather not antagonize us. So we can influence them. Thus the right broad approach for Western governments is to pursue mutually beneficial trade, energy, and security agreements with Azerbaijan through traditional diplomacy while keeping up a persistent pressure for free media and human rights through public diplomacy, including agencies such as RFERL and independent media such as CNN.

If my division of responsibilities sounds a little too neat, OK, that’s a fair criticism. For good or ill there cannot be an impermeable wall between strategic or economic diplomacy and the public sort. Tensions between the two are always there, but usually as an undercurrent rather than up-front. Western embassies exist mainly to promote and defend the interests of their countries in a dangerous world. All the same, I always found the local US embassy solicitous and helpful when one of RFE/RL’s reporters was arrested or beaten up by mysterious figures no one seemed interested in tracking down — even though our criticisms of the local regime must have been unhelpful to the diplomats’ other tasks. Sometimes, though, they would be especially helpful.

That was when they were feeling the heat from Washington — no, not from the State Department or the White House but from some Senator, Congressman, columnist, NGO, freelance busybody, or activist group of one kind or another (Christian, Jewish, feminist, leftist, even occasionally corporate) — not excluding members of the Great American Public or any other influential publics.

That’s where you come in. Khadija mentions in her letter that she takes some comfort from books. My guess is, however, that she’s a quick reader and that we should increase her library supply with something suitable. Alas, there is the possibility (even likelihood, I suppose) that the books might be diverted from her to some office of the secret police. So choose books that might stir unexpected and rebellious thoughts in the mind of some lonely, bored secret policeman working late in the Blue Pencil Department—Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” perhaps, or George Faludy’s “My Happy Days in Hell,” or Orwell’s Animal Farm,” or even a DVD of the recent Seth Rogen-James Franco movie, “The Interview,” satirising North Korea’s ruler.

Sending the package should be easy. Just address it to “Khadija Ismayilova, Kurdakhanii Prison, Azerbaijan”. They’ll know who it’s for.

John O’Sullivan is the editor of Quadrant