Article February 2, 2018

Wrongful detention: the plight of independent journalists in the CIS

The 2017 abduction of Afgan Mukhtarli not only puts Georgia’s democratic credentials under scrutiny, but also highlights the variety of threats faced by independent journalists in many parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including wrongful detention, writes Saif Islam. What is wrongful detention?

It is the act of arresting or detaining an individual or group without justifiable reason. For more on this, read our previous blog post on the topic here. (LINK TO

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s most recent statistics, as of 1 December 2016, 259 journalists were in prison worldwide, many of them in connection with their work, the highest total since CPJ started collecting data in 2000. Although only 17 of these journalists are from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), this does not fully encapsulate the multitude of challenges faced by independent journalists in many parts of the region. The fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent changes to political and government structures have not resulted in substantial media freedom. Self-censorship is prevalent, while independent journalists and media practitioners continue to encounter harassment and wrongful detention. One of the countries that has largely managed to resist that trend is Georgia, although the 2017 abduction of an Azerbaijani opposition journalist, Afgan Mukhtarli, has put the country’s democratic credentials under scrutiny.

Mukhtarli was an outspoken critic of the Azerbaijani government and has been living in self-imposed exile in Georgia since 2015. Late in May last year, Mukhtarli failed to show up for a meeting with his wife, Leyla Mustafayeva. The following day, Mustafayeva was informed that her husband was being held in pre-trial detention in Azerbaijan on charges of illegal border-crossing and smuggling. Mukhtarli reportedly said through his lawyers that unknown assailants abducted him in Tbilisi, beat him, forcibly placed EUR 10,000 in his pocket, and drove him across the border to Azerbaijan. Eight months on he remains in detention in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, while the international journalists’ advocacy group, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), and various regional and international human rights organisations continue to demand his release. His wife continues to campaign for his release. (LINK TO

Mukhtarli’s case has generated considerable international publicity and several anti-government protests in Georgia, especially over the alleged role of Georgian security services in his abduction. Georgian Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, strictly denied the involvement of any state bodies. However, most observers hold that even if Azerbaijani secret services abducted him, they could not have done it without some collusion from local authorities, not least because Mukhtarli’s passport remains in Tbilisi.

Mukhtarli is one of several journalists and activists who have fled Azerbaijan in recent years, amidst an increased government crackdown on the press, and found refuge in Georgia. Mukhtarli reportedly helped some of them resettle in Georgia, which supposedly raised the ire of the Azerbaijani government. This has placed Georgia in an uncomfortable position, as although it wants to be seen as a ‘Western-style’ democracy, it also wants to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan, a major foreign investor and source of energy supplies.

The widespread backlash surrounding this case, however, has put the Georgian government on the back foot, wary of potential political repercussions at home. Although by regional standards there is an open media environment, disputes over the ownership of pro-opposition channel, Rustavi 2, has raised concerns about threats to media freedom. These factors are likely to see Georgia provide greater protection to Azerbaijani dissidents in the near future.

Mukhtarli’s fate is uncertain, although he is unlikely to be released in the short- to medium term. Independent journalists – particularly those who investigate government corruption or human rights scandals – continue to face the threat of wrongful detention in Azerbaijan. The arrest of prominent investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, in December 2014 attracted significant international condemnation, which likely resulted in her eventual release in 2016. Others have not been equally fortunate. For example, Elcin Ismayilli, an independent journalist known for his criticism of the government was sentenced to nine years in prison in September 2017 on extortion charges, a case that has been widely condemned as politically motivated. In June 2017, Fikret Faramazoglu, another independent journalist who reported on corruption within law enforcement, was sentenced to seven years in prison on extortion charges.

RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranks Azerbaijan 162th out of 180 countries. Only Uzbekistan (169th) and Turkmenistan (178th) are ranked lower among the CIS countries. Since the death of Uzbekistan’s long-time authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, in September 2016, there have been speculations about political liberalisation and media reforms under his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The country’s heavily censored state media outlets have reportedly started criticising certain government policies, regional leaders and state agencies, albeit very cautiously. In February 2017, Muhammad Bekjanov, a former editor of opposition newspaper Erk, was released after 18 years in prison, joining the ranks of several political prisoners freed under Mirziyoyev. While these developments should be welcomed, they do not represent any fundamental changes to the country’s overly restrictive political and media environments.

What Mukhtarli’s case demonstrates is the risk many activists, journalists and opposition politicians face on a daily basis. The price of their outspokenness is often their freedom, in some cases their lives – as the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow highlighted. Wrongful detention, however, is by no means limited to these professions, and there are numerous cases of businessmen and –women being held on spurious charges, often arising from contractual disagreements and political entanglement. An example is the 2015 detainment of Turkish businessmen in Russia; a move widely thought to be retaliation for the downing of a Russian fighter plane by Turkish forces just a few days prior. International relations have a way of affecting private citizens, and any company sending staff abroad needs to be aware of the risk.