A journalist working for an independent media outlet in Azerbaijan says authorities are preventing her from travel.
Seadet Jahangir, of the Azadliq news outlet, was informed in a letter from the Prosecutor General’s Office last month that she was barred from “crossing state boundaries.”
The reason? Jahangir’s involvement two years ago in a case against an opposition activist sentenced to prison on terror charges.
“I was interrogated as a witness [in the case]. They do not have the right to prohibit travel by law,” Jahangir told VOA.
Jahangir is among a number of journalists in Azerbaijan who have been barred from leaving the country in what lawyers and media workers said appeared to be an increasingly widespread measure used by the Azerbaijani government to target its critics.
The press department of the Prosecutor General’s Office has not responded to VOA’s request for comment on the ban.
Travel bans seen as weaponized
Rufat Safarov, a former prosecutor who now heads the human rights group Defense Line, told VOA that travel is restricted when a person is arrested, subject to a restraining order or has a conviction.
He said he believed that Azerbaijani authorities weaponize travel bans by restricting the free movement of those whom they deem critical of the government.
“In some cases, during the investigation, the right of a person that is questioned or interrogated as a witness to leave the country is hindered, which is completely against the current legislation. There are reports that even those identified as victims during an investigation were ‘stopped’ from leaving the country,” he said.
According to the nongovernmental Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, 18 journalists were banned from leaving Azerbaijan in 2019, some without prior notification.
Most notably, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was under a travel ban after her release from prison. The award-winning journalist served over two years of a 7½-year sentence after being convicted of tax evasion and abuse of power in 2014.
Rights groups believe the conviction was in retaliation for Ismayilova’s reporting on corruption.
The ban had a serious impact on Ismayilova, who was unable to visit her dying mother in a hospital in Turkey. The ban also prevented the journalist from traveling to Sweden to accept an award.
Local courts reject complaints
Some of the journalists under travel bans have filed complaints in local courts to have the blocks lifted, saying they considered them illegal. But local courts upheld the decisions.
A few later filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). One of them was Sevinj Vaqifqizi, who works for Meydan TV.
During a 2015 criminal investigation of Meydan TV on alleged illegal business practices, Vaqifqizi was a witness. She was later banned from leaving the country and had to seek ECHR intervention before the ban was lifted.
“According to the law, a witness cannot be banned from leaving the country. In 2019, the ECHR found the travel ban unfair and ordered the Azerbaijani government to lift it and pay me 5,000 euros [$5,520] in compensation,” Vaqifqizi said.
Vaqifqizi said she believed authorities wanted to discourage her from working for the independent media.
"Even during the investigation of Meydan TV, the investigator said, ‘You work in such a problematic place, whereas you can easily work on any TV channel and get your salary.’ But I have no intention of working for TV channels disseminating government propaganda,” she said.
'Persecution and pressure'
In Jahangir’s case, the journalist has written to the national ombudsman requesting assistance and said she plans to file a lawsuit.
“I consider this [travel ban] to be related to my oppositionist views, my membership in the [decision-making body] of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and my critical thoughts against the authorities. Because this is one of the numerous tools of persecution and pressure against me,” she told VOA.
The Azerbaijan Popular Front Party is an opposition political party.
Parliamentarian Fazil Mustafa, head of the Great Order Party, told VOA that there is no special ban on citizens leaving Azerbaijan and that it is impossible for any group to prevent anyone from leaving the country without a court decision.
“I, personally, have not come across any information in the press or on social media about the ban on any journalist or political activist leaving the country,” he said. “If there is such a decision without a court order, it is against the law. It is necessary to file a lawsuit against it.”
Azerbaijan has a poor record of press freedom, ranking 167th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, where 1 is freest. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says that authorities imprison and harass independent and critical journalists.
This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijan Service.