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Fellow to Use New Skills in Under-Served Regions Of Azerbaijan

Tahmina Taghiyeva, Vaclav Havel Fellow from the Azerbaijani Service.
Tahmina Taghiyeva, Vaclav Havel Fellow from the Azerbaijani Service.
Tahmina Taghiyeva, Vaclav Havel Fellow from the Azerbaijani Service, has won the Press Prize from the Fritt Ord Foundation and the ZEIT Foundation for 2013 for courage and professionalism in promoting free speech in Azerbaijan. The Oslo and Hamburg-based foundations cooperate to award prizes to journalists and media in Russia and Eastern Europe who face intimidation and censorship from government authorities. We spoke with Taghiyeva about the work that earned her this prestigious recognition, what she hopes to learn during her fellowship with RFE/RL, and how she’ll put her skills to use when she returns home.

RFE/RL: This prize is intended to support the independent role of journalists subject to intimidation and censorship. Your journalistic work thus far has been a constant fight for the right of free speech. How have authorities attempted to suppress your work in the past?

Tahmina Taghiyeva: Before joining RFE/RL as a Havel Fellow, I worked as a journalist in my hometown of Ganja, which is the second largest city in Azerbaijan. For five years I was an editor and coordinator at the Ganja Media Center, a project run by a local NGO. The Center has its own website, and provides training for journalists.

At the same time, I was a regional video journalist with the national TV channel ANS. Back in 2007, at the time when I started to work for ANS, it was more or less independent, but every year it was becoming less and less independent, as we were not allowed to cover certain sensitive topics or criticize the local government.

The situation became even worse when, at the beginning of 2011, the President appointed a new mayor for Ganja. The mayor soon established himself as very repressive towards NGOs, journalists, and human rights activists. It became even worse when he began demolishing private houses, businesses, and even historical buildings on a massive scale in order to make space for new construction. I was one of the few journalists in Ganja who started to talk about this problem, and when my reports were aired on ANS, I came under immense pressure from the local authorities.

Instead of interceding for me, my manager at ANS began pushing me to soften my reports, and to avoid criticism. So, a fight with my editors ensued. Eventually, I said to my editors: either you take my reports as they are, or you do not air them at all, as I'm not going to self-censor them. I could not possibly agree with such demands.

The NGO under which the Ganja Media Center was operating also came under pressure. We were told not to publish anything critical of local authorities. I was told that if I continued to publish critical material, they might close our center.

RFE/RL: As a local journalist under the constant scrutiny of local authorities, it must have been very difficult to resist intimidation.

TT: I did not want to put the Ganja Media Center at risk, so I left. Eventually, I was also made to leave my work at ANS TV. I set off on my own and began publishing material in various independent publications. I launched my own blog and created my own YouTube channel, where I placed all my videos and reports. Local government officials were now able to refuse my requests for interviews, and the mayor even rang me to say I should not cover certain topics.

Local officials grew more furious. They even began to threaten me and my cameraman. For example, once when I was filming a report about demolishing a historic 18th century building, they said they would set me up—they would put narcotics in my car, and I'd be arrested. Even my family was pressured. My sister lost her job and had difficulties finding a new one because of my work.

Once, the authorities charged me with having covered an event without authorization to work as a journalist. I had to spend a couple of hours in police custody, but I was able to prove that I was right. My friends and other journalists helped publicize the incident, so the authorities eventually dropped the case against me. What I was actually reporting on was a plan to demolish private houses which stood in the spot where the local government wanted to build a road. Now, almost nine months after my reports, the houses are still intact, and the road is still unfinished.

Another report I made was about the demolition of a building of important historical heritage in the region: it was the only building left which was associated with Javad Khan, the last Khan of the Ganja Khanate, who was killed during the first Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813. Javad Khan is a local hero, and highly respected not only in Ganja but in the entire country. When I posted that video on my YouTube channel, all the major media in Azerbaijan picked it up, and it caused a huge public outcry.

These reports also helped strengthen my authority, although I was already well known in the region as a journalist who fights for freedom of expression. International organizations and embassies in Azerbaijan also knew me because of my previous work as a coordinator of the Ganja Media Center.

So, in September last year, when I had already joined RFE/RL as a Havel Fellow in Baku, I got a phone call from the German Embassy in Azerbaijan, and was informed that I had been nominated for the Press Prize.

RFE/RL: You joined the RFE/RL Havel Fellowship Program when you were already established and a seasoned journalist, so how do you think your stay at RFE/RL can further enrich your resume? What do you intend to do once the fellowship program is over?

TT: Here in Prague I present a 25-minute TV show, which the Azeri Service airs weekly on Turksat. I also help the service with their YouTube channel by translating and localizing video reports from other RFE/RL services.

What I really would like is to learn how to be an investigative reporter—how to do investigative journalism safely and in an ethically correct way. I have a lot of questions in this area, and I really hope to pick the brains of Khadija Ismayilova, who is one of the most important investigative journalists in my country. (In 2012, Ismayilova won the same prize as Tahmina is getting for 2013, ed.)

Most importantly, I think I should return to my city. I want to be an example to other journalists. In our capital city Baku, there are many brave journalists, but not so in the regions, because, as you say, it is much harder to resist intimidation in the close proximity of the authorities who are eager to silence you.

I belong to my city and to my region. It is there that I believe I am most useful. I am very much committed to the development of local journalism.

Launched in 2011, the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship program is made possible through support by the Czech Foreign Ministry.

-- Zydrone Krasauskiene [this article first appeared on RFE/RL's "LibertyNet" intranet]