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UNESCO Lauds Ismayilova Amid Mounting Pressure For Journalist's Freedom

RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, Baku, 16 Feb 2012.
RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, Baku, 16 Feb 2012.

WASHINGTON -- On World Press Freedom Day, imprisoned Azerbaijani investigative reporter and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova was named the 2016 recipient of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, as journalists and activists around the world invoked the day’s message to call for her release.

The journalist’s mother, Elmira Ismayilova, traveled from Baku to accept the award at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland on May 3, reciting a defiant speech written by her daughter from her prison cell.

“Humanity suffers when journalists are silenced,” wrote Ismayilova, referring to the unsolved 2005 murder of her colleague, Azeri editor Elmar Huseynov, and the assassination in 1986 of Columbian editor Guillermo Cano, the prize’s namesake.

She said the award was not a cause for celebration but a call to action, and summoned those gathered at the ceremony “not to laud my work, or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice.”

Presiding over the ceremony, President of Finland Sauli Niinisto declared, “I deeply regret that Ms. Ismayilova is not with us today but is imprisoned… I hope that our event in Helsinki will be a turning point. I hope that it will bring about a more positive global development for a right to free expression and press freedom”

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who was recently named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, told an audience during the day’s proceedings that today marked Khadija’s 516th day in prison, and personally called on the Azerbaijani government to free her. U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO and Director John Lansing joined in calling for Ismayilova’s immediate release in a statement released today.

RFE/RL editor in chief Nenad Pejic welcomed the prize, calling it “powerful recognition of Khadija’s work and her undeniable right to freedom.”

The prize comes amidst a growing global campaign for the journalist’s release. A bill introduced last December by U.S. Representative Christopher Smith imposing visa and financial sanctions on Azeri officials for human rights abuses recently gained its fourth co-sponsor in Congress. An international coalition of NGOS is planning rallies in 40 cities on May 27, Ismayilova’s 40th birthday, to call for her release.

Ismayilova’s courage and wrongful imprisonment have been the subject of considerable international attention and tribute, including the PEN American Center's 2015 Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the National Press Club's 2015 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, and the 2012 International Women's Media Foundation's “Courage in Journalism” award.

Ismayilova was detained by Azerbaijani state agents on December 5, 2014, and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in September 2015 on charges widely viewed as retaliation for her award-winning investigative reporting linking members of President Ilham Aliyev’s family to corruption.

The UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize honors an outstanding contribution to the defense and/or promotion of press freedom anywhere in the world, especially when this has been achieved in the face of danger.

Azerbaijan is ranked “Not Free” (189th out of 199 countries and territories evaluated) in Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom of the Press survey, and “Very Bad” (163rd out of 180 countries and territories evaluated) in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

About RFE/RL
RFE/RL is a private, independent international news organization whose programs -- radio, Internet, television, and mobile -- reach influential audiences in 23 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is funded by the U.S. Congress through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).