When police arrived at the home of Aziz Orujov, the Azerbaijani journalist’s 3-year-old daughter tried to stand between her father and the masked officials there to arrest him.
Video shows the girl, her hair in pigtails and barely measuring up to her father’s waist, wrap her arms around Orujov as masked men stand in the corner.
“She’s trying to keep Aziz from the police and tries not to let him go with them,” Orujov’s brother Anar Orujov told VOA.
Arrested in late November on illegal construction charges that media advocates view as retaliatory, Aziz Orujov will be held in pre-trial detention for three months.
If convicted, the director of the independent channel Kanal 13 faces up to three years in prison.
Orujov is one of six independent journalists detained in Azerbaijan over the past two weeks. Press freedom experts say the move is politically motivated and underscores the lack of civil liberties for the media and Azeri society.
“It’s shocking and outrageous to see this high number of journalists being arrested in such a short time frame,” said Karol Luczka, who works on Azerbaijan at the Vienna-based International Press Institute. “I haven’t seen anything like this in the region.”
Journalists consider arrests retaliatory
The first journalist detained was Ulvi Hasanli, the director of the independent outlet Abzas Media. Police arrested Hasanli early on November 20 on suspicion of illegally bringing money into the country. Police later raided his apartment and searched Abzas Media’s offices.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Abzas Media said Hasanli’s arrest and the raid were part of President Ilham Aliyev’s pressure on the outlet for “a series of investigations into the corruption crimes of the president and officials appointed by him.”
In the days that followed, authorities arrested Sevinj Vagifgizi, the outlet’s editor in chief; Mahammad Kekalov, the deputy director; and Nargiz Absalamova, a journalist.
All are in pretrial detention for terms of between three and four months and stand accused of illegally bringing money into the country.
Azerbaijan’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
International groups condemn arrests
One of the few remaining independent outlets in Azerbaijan, Abzas Media is known for its coverage of corruption, including allegations that touch on the ruling family.
“[Abzas Media] is for ordinary people, ordinary people in Azerbaijan, ordinary readers who should know what happens in their own country. So that’s why they were so dangerous,” said Shahin Hajiyev, executive director of the media development fund, the Najaf Najafov Foundation.
At Kanal 13, in addition to the arrest of the founder Orujov, police on December 4 arrested Rufat Muradli, a presenter, on charges of minor hooliganism and disobeying police orders. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison.
Anar Orujov, Aziz’s brother and Kanal 13’s editor in chief, has been watching this latest media crackdown from Germany, where he has lived in exile since 2014.
International press freedom and human rights groups have widely condemned the arrests.
Hajiyev, who heads the media development fund, says large numbers of arrests, which have occurred before in Azerbaijan, are likely to discourage younger people from pursuing independent journalism.
“It has a very negative influence on younger generations of journalists who will realize that if they [do] independent journalism, they have no future in this country,” he said.
Media watchdogs have said the arrests appear to be politically motivated.
But Azerbaijani Minister of Internal Affairs Vilayat Eyvazov told the Committee to Protect Journalists — often referred to as CPJ — that such claims of a politically motivated crackdown are “completely groundless.”
Eyvazov said that Hasanli, Vagifgizi and Kekalov had smuggled “a large amount of foreign currency” across Azerbaijan’s border.
Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the CPJ, sees a geopolitical goal in the arrests.
In the wake of Azerbaijan’s military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh — the disputed region that Azerbaijan took from ethnic Armenian control in September — Baku is trying to show governments that have been supportive of Armenia that it has complete control over the media, according to Said.
On November 28, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said it summoned the U.S., French and German envoys to condemn what it described as “illegal financial operations” in the three countries to support Abzas Media.
‘Complete environment of fear’
“That’s supposed to serve as a warning” to not support the outlets or Armenia, Said told VOA.
The media advocate told VOA that the arrests fostered a “complete environment of fear” among the country’s journalists.
“Right now, everybody is scared that they can be the next,” she said, “and it is very likely that this wave of detentions is not over.”