The murder of a prominent Azerbaijani reporter and gay rights activist is a tragedy for the country’s media and civil society, a media analyst said.
Avaz Shikhmammadov, a 24-year-old reporter popularly known as Avaz Hafizli, was stabbed to death Tuesday near the capital, Baku, according to the Azerbaijan Attorney General’s Office and Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Police arrested the reporter’s cousin, Amrulla Gulaliyev, in connection with the attack, and the prosecutor's office is investigating.
“Initial investigation shows that Gulaliyev was drunk when he committed the crime and has admitted to killing his cousin as a result of a dispute,” a joint statement by the attorney general and ministry said.
Neither Gulaliyev nor his attorney has yet issued a comment.
Hafizli worked as a reporter for the independent video news website, 13Kanal, where he covered a range of issues, including LGBTQ rights.
He took part in rallies against the new media law in Azerbaijan and staged protests demanding the government end discrimination against LGBTQ citizens. Last year, the journalist chained himself to the fence outside the chief prosecutor’s office to protest a lack of action against threats to the gay community.
The country ranks 167 out of 180 countries, where one is the freest on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
Media and legal analysts called for a thorough investigation into Hafizli’s death to determine whether the attack was motivated by his journalism or activism.
Friends of the journalist say he was harassed by his family and others for his work and his sexual orientation, including a blogger who called for violence against gay people. Some relatives disowned him, Global Voices reported.
Supporters paid tribute to the journalist on social media and cited a lack of action in violence against the gay community.
Authorities in Azerbaijan say that basic rights and freedoms of citizens are fully guaranteed.
But rights groups disagree.
Hate crimes are a serious issue in Azerbaijan, with attacks, online harassment and threats a risk, the umbrella gay rights organization ILGA-Europe says
Shamshad Agha, a media expert in Baku, described Hafizli’s murder as a “tragic event for both journalism and the society in Azerbaijan.”
Agha, who presents a show on Toplum TV and edits an independent news website, called for a thorough investigation of the incident.
Police say the killing was the result of a drunken dispute.
But Javid Nabiyev, a LGBTQ+ rights defender, says that every crime against the gay community in Azerbaijan is political in its nature.
“Hate crimes are political, because there is no mechanism. There is no protection mechanism. There is no awareness mechanism. There are no opportunities to work with the society. The reason behind the lack of these opportunities is the government. And that in itself makes any crime political,” he said.
Part of the problem is a lack of clarity in hate speech legislation and how the laws are applied, according to media legal expert Khalid Agaliyev.
"A government that comes up with and adopts a law every week aimed at curbing critical content and silencing voices must focus its main efforts on treating the atmosphere that is fertile for hate speech, improving the law, and enforcing existing laws more effectively. Otherwise, we will witness more such horrible crimes," he said.
The Council of Europe last month adopted a resolution on gay rights in Azerbaijan and the Southern Caucasus, calling for better laws and policies to protect citizens’ rights.This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani service.