After a call-out among journalists regarding a poor working environment at Radio Free Europe's Azerbaijani division, a wave of uncomfortable details has been revealed. The editorial team has dismissed staff in favor of journalists with ties to authoritarian regimes. Now, the independence of the American media house is being questioned.
Av Rasmus Canbäck 13 augusti, 2023
After Azerbaijani journalist Turkhan Karimov was dismissed from his position as a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Azerbaijani branch Azadliq Radiosu (Free Radio), at least one person was hired who is accused of spreading Azerbaijani regime propaganda.
The new recruit, Mammadsharif Alakhbarov, has worked as a reporter and producer for Azerbaijani regime media for the past 15 years, including the TV channel CVC. There, he has been an editor for films that glorify the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and praise President Ilham Aliyev. On social media, he has consistently supported the dictatorship.
In connection with Karimov’s dismissal, five former journalists published personal accounts on social media describing a highly problematic work environment within the media organization. Especially Azadliq Radiuso’s editor Ilkin Mammadov is pointed out by the journalists as significant in creating a difficult work atmosphere.
The posts reveal allegations against the editors of favoritism and authoritarian leadership style. They also accuse the editorial team of forcing freelance journalists in Baku to rent equipment for their work and of making deductions or providing lower pay if the journalists are stopped or arrested by the police, which is a recurring issue for journalists in Azerbaijan.
Reporters Without Borders blacklist the country in their press freedom index, and reports of journalists being obstructed in their professional practice through police violence are far from uncommon.
Ravan Seyfulla, one of the journalists who worked for RFE/RL and participated in the protest, confirms that the editor threatened to deduct his salary if he continues to face issues with the police.
“We often had problems with the police in our work. Ilkin’s reaction was anything but supportive. Instead of offering help, he sculded me. He insinuated that I was deliberately getting arrested and warned that if such incidents were to recur, I would face a salary deduction”, Ravan Seyfulla tells Blankspot.
According to him, journalists were not informed about the amount of payment they would receive for assignments due to security concerns, but over time, his payment gradually decreased.
“We couldn’t ask about our expected salaries at all, and he (Ilkin) had control over the money for security reasons. Over time, I noticed that my salary was decreasing, and in the end, I received one-fifth, maybe even less, of what my colleagues got”, says Ravan Seyfulla.
The affected journalists have also pointed out that previous attempts to contact RFE/RL’s HR department have been fruitless. Replies have been absent.
The posts have caused a wave of similar stories within the independent Azerbaijani journalists’ community, many of whom live abroad. These stories stretch back in time and shed light on the issues within the editorial team.
Among others, the prominent journalist Arzu Geybulla, in a lengthy post on Medium, has supported the journalists with similar accounts. In the post, she talks about systematic harassment by the editorial team towards journalists and provides detailed information to emphasize that the issue has not been unknown.
She also includes a letter from her addressed to the owners of RFE/RL from 2018, addressing the structural challenges within the editorial team.
RFE/RL was founded in 1949 by the United States government to broadcast news content via radio in Eastern European languages across Europe. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the media organization has operated as an independent entity but with oversight and funding from the U.S. government. The annual budget of the media house exceeds 124 000 000 USD (2021).
Today, RFE/RL operates in 23 countries and in 27 different languages. It is considered one of the most prominent sources of independent news in otherwise authoritarian countries like Azerbaijan.
Since 2014, in connection with the deterioration of civil society in Azerbaijan, Azadliq Radiosu was banned from the country after a police raid on the office, during which journalists were exposed and interrogated. The editor-in-chief was imprisoned. Today, the Azerbaijani editorial team has its office in RFE/RL’s headquarters in Prague, but still collaborates with journalists on the ground in Azerbaijan.
The press code of ethics on RFE/RL’s website states their commitment to being entirely independent from the states in which they operate and their opposition to all forms of intolerance.
All three editors at Azadliq Radiuso are implicated, but particularly the editor-in-chief Ilkin Mammadov, who is mentioned in everyone’s accounts.
In a brief statement on Twitter (now X) on August 4th, RFE/RL’s official press office denied the allegations.
“RFE/RL is deeply concerned about unsubstantiated claims circulating on social media impugning our journalism in Azerbaijan. RFE/RL is committed to free and fair journalism.”
The implicated new recruit, Mammadsharif Alakhbarov, deactivated his social media accounts when the allegations surfaced. Prior to that, several posts from his social media had leaked, including illustrations portraying Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as a rat and someone urinating on the French Senate.
The French Senate condemned Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
In addition to reactions from journalists who have worked for Azadliq Radiosu, the Council of Europe’s media protection body, together with the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), has also responded. On August 8th, they demanded answers from RFE/RL regarding the working conditions for journalists.
On August 10th, EFJ issued another statement requesting an independent investigation by the US government into the incident. Secretary General Ricardo Gutiérrez stated in the press release that the allegations cannot be ignored by RFE/RL.
“Such facts and such a crisis situation cannot go unanswered or unreacted by the management of RFE/RL. It is the very credibility of the media that is at stake. We are calling for complete clarity in the management of the radio station and for the reinstatement of the journalists who have been unfairly dismissed or forced to resign.”
We have attempted to reach the journalists who are making statements referring to their social media posts. The recently dismissed journalist, Turkan Karimov, states that he cannot answer any questions at the moment as his case could become a labor law matter.
An individual, who wishes to remain anonymous due to potential legal consequences, claims that it was a systematic practice to delete internal work conversations.
Some were manually deleted while others had messages with automatic disappearance in messaging apps. According to the source, the editors claimed that the reason for deleting messages was for security purposes. As a result, only a few of the allegations are documented.
Despite the criticism towards editor Ilkin Mamamdov, it’s worth noting that during his tenure, significant investigations have been published. For instance, the Azerbaijani team exposed corruption among high-ranking politicians in Azerbaijan.
After repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact RFE/RL through their press office, they finally responded when we directly contacted editor Ilkin Mammadov. We offered him an oral interview, but the press office requested the questions in advance and responded in writing.
In the email conversation, we provided detailed information we had gathered and attached screenshots from Mammadsharif Alakhbarov’s social media.
The questions we asked were how Ilkin Mammadov generally views the allegations, how RFE/RL reasons about the allegations of salary deductions during police detentions, how Alakhbarov’s background aligns with RFE/RL’s ethical guidelines, and whether they will take any actions.
Instead of answering any of the questions, the press office provided a statement.
“RFE/RL is aware of online allegations related to the Azerbaijani Service, but cannot comment on specific personnel matters.
We value the trust audiences in Azerbaijan have placed in us to provide uncensored news that reflects our mission and adheres to our principles of ethical journalism. As a result, we have vigorous processes in place to protect our journalists and journalism.
If we receive information requiring further investigation, we will take the appropriate steps to do so.”
We have also attempted to reach Mammadsharif Alakhbarov and RFE/RL’s CEO Jeff Gedmin.
2023-08-14: After the publication of the article the press service of RFE/RL notified Blankspot that the initial requests from us were found in their spam email.
Top picture: The headquaters of RFE/RL in Prague. Photo Jan Rambousak/RFE/RL