Journalists Arrested in Raid on Azeri Media Outlet

Baku, Azerbaijan — This week Azeri authorities detained several journalists at an independent media outlet and raided its office and the homes of some of its staff.  

Police raided Toplum TV Wednesday in the capital, Baku, and the homes of some of its staff, and detained several people, according to its Editor-in-Chief Khadija Ismayilova.  

On Friday, police made additional arrests, including Toplum TV’s co-founder Alasgar Mammadli.  

As well as Mammadli, three of Toplum TV’s journalists – video editor Mushfiq Jabbar, reporter Farid Ismayilov and social media manager Elmir Abbasov — remain in custody, on charges of smuggling.  

Authorities also detained four people associated with the Institute for Democratic Initiatives, including the nonprofit’s chair, Akif Gurbanov. The Azerbaijani organization carries out training with Toplum TV.  

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs told VOA that police conducted the searches “based on information received about the activities of a group of people.” Additional information will be provided later, the spokesperson said.  

Founded in 2016, Toplum TV covers a range of political, economic and social issues.  

Its Editor-in-Chief Ismayilova told VOA, the media outlet will keep working despite the raid.  

“Right now, the doors of our office have been sealed by the investigative body. But, despite their will, we will continue the work of Toplum TV,” she said. “We are now working on a transition plan. Of course, we intend to ensure continuity of our work, because what we do is very important.”

Authorities also appeared to have gained access to the Toplum TV YouTube page, which had 90,000 followers. The page was renamed, and the content deleted.  

“This in itself is an indicator that, although it may not be their only goal, part of their goal is to silence the media,” Ismayilova told VOA.

A lawyer for one of the detained journalists said she is concerned for the journalist’s health.  

“Farid Ismayilov underwent surgery on his nose in November, and three times on his lungs in December. He was still under medical supervision. We are very worried about that,” the lawyer, Zibeyda Sadygova told reporters outside of the Baku City Police Department.

Sadygova said that police tried to make Ismayilov sign documents, which he refused to do.  

“Farid did not sign anything. We noted this in the protocol. We will file a complaint with the relevant bodies,” Sadygova said.

Shahla Humbatova, a lawyer for Gurbanov, said she was not allowed to be present during the search of his house.  

“Gurbanov said that some documents were taken from his house during the search. He said that the police raided the office, planted 30,000 euros there and then took it. Akif Gurbanov and Ruslan Izzateli were put in separate a room and they [officers] performed the search without any supervision,” Humbatova said.  

She noted that Gurbanov said that the money taken during the search does not belong to him or the organization.  

Khadija Ismayilova said the police operation comes amid a “wave of repression” in the country.

“They are trying to silence all critical opinions. They try not to leave any platform for criticism. They are trying to blacken the country. They will probably continue the wave of repression until all the places of light in the country are closed,” Ismayilova told VOA.

The Toplum arrests are the latest case of journalists being detained. At least 10 other journalists who work for independent media outlets have been arrested since late 2023 and accused of smuggling foreign currency.   

The journalists in those cases deny the accusations and say they believe they are being targeted in relation to their investigations into suspected corruption among high-ranking officials in Azerbaijan.

Freedom House described the raid on Toplum TV as the “latest unacceptable attack on critical, independent voices in the country.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the Aliyev regime’s campaign against civil society, activists and independent media,” Freedom House wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

A spokesperson for the European Commission foreign affairs and security policy, Peter Stano told VOA that the EU is following the situation around the detention of journalists and civil society activists.  

“The EU calls on the Azerbaijani authorities to ensure freedom of expression, including free and unhindered space for independent journalism, in line with its international commitments,” he said.

The U.S. State Department also commented on the raid. “We must express our strong objections to continued attempts to intimidate, repress, and punish journalists, civil society voices, and opposition figures. We call on Azerbaijan to end the harassment of those exercising their fundamental freedoms and urge the release of all individuals being unjustly held in politically motivated cases,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a briefing. 

He said that no one should face incarceration or other retribution for exercising freedom of expression.

This story originated in VOA’s Azeri service. Tapdiq Farhadoglu, Emil Baghirov, Turkan Bashir, Parvana Bayramova and Ulviyya Guliyeva contributed to this story.

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