The morning of 9 April did not promise to be out of the ordinary for Sevinc Osmanqizi, an Azerbaijani journalist based in the suburbs of Washington DC. She started her morning routine by making a fresh pot of coffee and readying her two sons for school. Prior to starting the daily broadcasts of her YouTube-based OsmanqiziTV channel, she checked her messages, which included links sent by friends to a broadcast that had aired a few days earlier on the recently-launched Real TV in Azerbaijan.
The host of the broadcast was all too familiar to Osmanqizi. It was her former colleague Mirshahin Aghayev, known to the TV-viewing public by only his first name. She saw her picture on the studio background monitors, and then heard her own voice. “It was a complete shock,” she said, describing her emotions. “This [was broadcast on] national TV, so why is my voice there, why am I hearing my personal conversation?”
The 9 April 2019 broadcast replayed a series of private voice messages Osmanqizi had exchanged with a media colleague who is in exile in Germany. “My first question was ‘how did they get ahold of it?’ The conversation took place more than a month prior. I was trying to remember the details. I couldn’t remember what platform I had used [to communicate]. This was one of many conversations that I’d had, it was personal,” she said. Some time later, she still seems disturbed by the incident. “I was asking myself, ‘if they have this conversation, what else do they have?’”
As Osmanqizi watched the rest of the broadcast, she grew more anxious. “It contained direct hints that they had more. They ran ads saying so.” In the next two weeks, the situation worsened, she said.
The channel that Aghayev operates, where he hosts his TV show, began airing information she said she had never shared on social media, including photos. Aghayev ominously promised his audience that they would see “much more.” In subsequent broadcasts, Aghayev revealed a series of intimate emails between Osmanqizi and a US-based man who Aghayev claimed was working for US intelligence services. He also insinuated that Osmanqizi herself was on the payroll of US special services, and threatened to air intimate photos and videos of her.
“I began to understand this is not a one-man operation, there is definitely official involvement,” Osmanquizi said, implying the involvement of the government of Azerbaijan.
“I immediately got very worried about her, and about another person she had a conversation with, after the broadcasts,” said Gulnoza Said, a senior researcher with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media freedom watchdog. “I was outraged because any conversation that two people have should remain private, and should never be used as state propaganda or to harass a journalist. And that’s exactly what we dealt with in Sevinc Osmanqizi’s case,” she said.
Been there, seen that
Said and others’ concerns were not unfounded. Although Aghayev and his TV channel have scaled back their threats to air intimate photos, videos, and her remaining correspondence, these were not empty threats. Sonia Zilberman, South Caspian Energy and Environment Program Director at Crude Accountability, an environmental and human rights organisation in Washington DC, said that alarming parallels came to mind when she heard about the threats against Osmanqizi.
“This isn’t the first time. The case with Khadija Ismayilova was even more excruciating,” she said, referencing the 2012 case in which the Azerbaijani government had been widely criticised for airing intimate footage that had been obtained through illegal surveillance of another Azerbaijani female journalist. Ismayilova’s reporting on government corruption involving the country’s “first family” became sufficiently problematic that the authorities resorted to blackmail. Ismayilova was filmed at a private residence with a male companion, and was blackmailed with stills of video footage from a camera installed in a ceiling light. She was warned to stop her journalist investigations, and when she refused and disclosed the attempted blackmail, the video footage was leaked online.
“Talking at a human level, the amount of pressure that the Azerbaijani journalists face is enormous. Not only inside the country, but as we are seeing right now, outside the country as well,” Zilberman said. “Their personal lives are being infiltrated, they are constantly under pressure.” At the same time, she added, the pressure shows how far the Azerbaijani government is willing to go, and how dirty it is prepared to play.
Said agreed. “Khadija Ismayilova’s case was the first thing that came to my mind when I spoke to Sevinc. Also, I recall many other cases when women were harassed or extorted, or attempted to be extorted, by similar means.”
Whereas Khadija Ismayilova was illegally surveilled and recorded inside Azerbaijan, Osmanqizi’s data was collected while she resided in the United States. This is a cause for some additional concern, according to Said. “We have known for some time, and have heard allegations that the Azerbaijani authorities practice surveillance of journalists and opposition members in the country,” she said. “The case with Osmanqizi [showed] that they may go as far as to target Azerbaijanis with critical views living outside the country. This is very concerning.”
The similarity between Ismayilova’s case and the threats against Osmanqizi were not lost on other journalists. A number of media and journalism organisations issued statements condemning the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities. Both Said’s and Zilberman’s organisations have issued statements in support of Osmanqizi, and Deutsche Welle and others tweeted their support. One Free Press Coalition included her name in the 10 “Most Urgent” Threats to Press Freedom Around the World.
“We are everything they are not”
The Azerbaijani authorities have been pouring millions, if not billions, of US dollars into “reputation laundering” to improve its standing in the west. Said noted that Azerbaijani authorities employed different tools, such as hiring respectable PR firms in Washington and some European capitals, and allegedly bribing some parliament members in Europe. “People like Sevinc Osmanqizi, or other journalists who live abroad and try to show to the world the real face of the Azerbaijani authorities, defeats the whole [set of] policies of the Azerbaijani authorities in creating their positive image,” she said, adding that the government perceives critical voices living outside the country as enemies they want to silence.
Osmanqizi’s YouTube channel airs daily broadcasts and call-in shows in Azerbaijani, and offers biting criticism of the government of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who is often chastised by international governments and organisations for his anti-democratic policies and imprisonment of journalists. She offers opinions not available on the government-controlled Azerbaijani media. She provides airtime to opposition figures and dissidents to whom other Azerbaijani television has been hostile for many years.
Osmanqizi is not alone.
“Since there are no normal conditions for free and independent media to function inside the country, and the local media are under control of the government and oligarchs, no one can directly criticise the authorities. So, in the last few years, many journalists and bloggers have left the country because of the persecution and pressure against them and their families. They started to create new media abroad, so they could continue their professional work. That is why these types of exiled Azerbaijani media have been mushrooming,” said Habib Muntezir, member of the board of the Berlin-based MeydanTV YouTube channel.
Osmanqizi said she “simply cannot” broadcast from within Azerbaijan. “I would be arrested the next day. That’s a clear cut case.”
What unites nearly all YouTube-based channels broadcasting from abroad is their stance in opposition to the current Aliyev government. “You can only show one side of the story. You cannot be impartial. In order to be impartial, you would have to cover all sides of the story. But if [the officials] refuse to talk to you, your platform becomes partial and lopsided. They label you ‘opposition,’ ‘activist’ media. But, as a journalist, you might be forced into this category against your wish,” he explains, saying that even independent experts on non-political matters are afraid to speak to independent exiled media sources for fear of persecution.
These channels form a diverse tapestry of voices, and vary in audience size, length of establishment, frequency of broadcasts, and most importantly, level of professionalism. Some are headed by professional journalists like Osmanqizi, a veteran alumna of the first independent TV channel ANS, where she had for years worked side by side with Aghayev, the host of broadcasts attempting to intimidate her. After leaving ANS, she worked for the BBC in London. Her channel has around 120,000 subscribers, impressive for a country the size of Azerbaijan.
Other channels, launched by people who lack journalistic experience or education, are often merely outlets for their operators to voice criticism of the government in the form of crude and insulting insinuations and rants. Some of these have impressive audiences, as well, as people look to them as the outlet for voicing their own pent up anger and frustration.
“Nowadays in the Azerbaijani media, there are very few professional journalists. Many were originally activists, people with courage, and they gain experience on the job. Lack of formal training leads to mistakes that violate media ethics, and some unprofessional action. Pressure and fear of persecution by the government are lowering the quality of the Azerbaijani media,” Muntezir said, noting the impact of an unfree society on both sides of the camera or microphone.
“If the environment were free, if people didn’t freeze with fear whenever they saw a microphone, if citizens were not afraid to speak to media, if the government, president, and ministers talked to the free media, we would not live in a blockade state,” Muntezir said.
According to Osmanqizi, when it comes to attacks on exiled media, “the government is losing the competition” for the hearts and minds of the public. “We are everything they are not,” she said. “What they are lacking is the truth, the reality. People see themselves in our programs, they recognise their problems, which is not the case with government-sponsored TV programs. That is why they tune into our channel.”
In her view, the choice between traditional and online media is really a choice between information and disinformation, and the latter is very easy to identify, she said. “You cannot fool anyone and make them believe that Real TV or [state broadcaster] AzTV is real news. People only watch them when they lose their remote control,” Osmanqizi adds, laughing.
The new internet-based TV channels offer the chance for the people to express their own opinions, and to hear the voices of average citizens they identify with. “They participate,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this is not something that can be done from inside Azerbaijan.”
Viewers are calling from inside the country for better journalism, and sometimes their support for the hosts of foreign-based channels speaking truth to power may cost them their freedom. Osmanqizi said this fate befell her viewer, Elzamin Salayev, after he recorded a video appeal condemning Aghayev’s campaign against her. According to Osmanqizi, he was given a fifteen day prison sentence for condemning Aghayev and questioning his morals for threatening to broadcast her intimate footage.
Camera… Lights… Attack!
There is very little doubt in the mind of Osmanqizi and others interviewed for this article as to where the orders for the attacks on journalists originate. “I have absolutely no doubt that they’re coming from the highest political leadership of Azerbaijan,” Osmanqizi said.
It is common knowledge in Azerbaijan as to who stands behind attacks appearing in the Azerbaijani media. Both Osmanqizi and Muntezir point to Ali Hasanov, an aide to the president on political and social affairs, as the architect of the attacks. “The order to attack is coming from Ali Hasanov and his group. I call the people who plan these attacks the presidential apparatus trolls,” Muntezir said, referencing Hasanov’s office as part of the president’s executive office. “The [TV] channels are being directly ordered what to broadcast. XazarTV is owned by Hasanov’s son, Shamkhal Hasanov. SpaceTV is owned by Sevil Aliyeva, the sister of the president.” The channels, he argued, are completely subservient to the authorities.
Osmanqizi agrees. “Hasanov has been the president’s media adviser for 23 years. He was Heydar Aliyev’s advisor, and now he is Ilham Aliyev’s advisor.” Heydar Aliyev, the nation’s former president, passed the helm to his son Ilham.
Earlier this year, Mirshahin Aghayev, the journalist from Real TV who threatened Osmanqizi, received a medal from the state security ministry (MTN) commemorating the 100th anniversary of “State Security and Foreign Intelligence Services.” The medal was awarded by Ilham Aliyev’s presidential decree and presented to Aghayev by MTN’s head of public affairs, Arif Babayev, during a ceremony at the TV station. In footage of the event broadcast on Real TV, Babayev calls Aghayev “someone we love very much.” Osmanqizi was dismayed that a journalist would be awarded such a medal by the intelligence service, and more so, that the ceremony would be proudly broadcast. She also wondered about Aghayev’s accomplishments that merited such an unusual recognition. “What has he done for them?” she asks. “Have you heard of any such thing in another country?”
Aghayev has been a prominent journalist in Azerbaijan since the early 1990s. He began his career at ANS TV, the first independent media source in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. He gained popularity with daring broadcasts that blurred the line between news reporting and opinion. In a country where there was no alternative to rigid state-controlled TV news, his reporting was a breath of fresh air, revitalising the media environment.
A degree of criticism was tolerated by the senior Aliyev’s regime, and ANS was allowed certain journalistic liberties. The government invariably pointed to ANS when defending itself against domestic and foreign critics who accused it of persecuting journalists. However, the Azerbaijani government’s toleration of ANS ended on 29 July 2016 when the station’s licence was revoked after ANS broadcast an interview with Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish cleric based in the United States who Turkey was attempting to extradite.
“ANS was shut down because it broadcasted reports that were not in line with presidential apparatus policy,” said Muntezir. “The condition to return ANS’s licence was that it would begin working under the direct supervision of Hasanov, and not broadcast a single sentence without the presidential apparatus’s approval nor stray from its dictates,” he said.
Prior to and during the controversy around ANS, Aghayev benefited from his stardom by teaching journalism. He was regarded as an institution.
He re-emerged from relative obscurity in March 2018, when the government granted a licence to a new broadcaster, Real TV. Aghayev took the helm at Real TV, and since then has been attacking and using insults and his signature word play and intentional slips of the tongue to smear anyone who dares to disagree with or criticise the authorities. Both Osmanqizi and Muntezir say that the motivation for allowing Aghayev back on the air and installing him at the helm of a new TV channel was the government’s need to counteract exiled media and critics of the regime who were outside its legal reach.
“[Before being allowed back on TV] Mirsahin [Aghayev] was made to promise that he would go on air every week and attack not only the opposition, but also those who think differently from the government. Otherwise, he could not return to TV. And he does so, every week,” said Muntezir. He added that Aghayev’s recently-launched Real TV was issued a new broadcast licence.
On 7 April, Aghayev made one of the most notorious appeals in the history of his editorial broadcasting. Using word play and double negatives, he called for treating opposition members “as if they did not have the Azerbaijani identity card,” meaning non-citizens with no rights. “If we did not live in a democratic country, I would call on emergency medical personnel not to treat them, bus drivers not to allow them to board buses, bread sellers not to sell them bread. But we live in a democratic society,” he said on the air. Media experts and lawyers in Azerbaijan have debated whether these words rise to the level of hate speech, and quite a few of them agreed, in interviews, that it did. So do many members of the opposition.
On April 21, Aghayev issued an ultimatum to Osmanqizi on his TV broadcast demanding that she stop her critical YouTube broadcasts, “or else.” When she refused, she said, “on 28 April my intimate materials were aired.”
In addition to airing private conversations and email correspondence pertaining to Osmanqizi, Aghayev also said that Osmanqizi had asked him to assign her to conduct interviews with local businesses. Imitating her manner of speech and voice inflection, he accused her of seeking to benefit financially from puff pieces that she would air. Aghayev and Osmanqizi had worked together at ANS between 2008 and 2013. He had been her supervisor.
Finally, on 16 July, Aghayev doubled down against the chorus of condemnation, and admitted in a television interview that he is no longer unbiased, something his critics accused him of for quite some time. “Now we have a position. It is impossible to have a position and remain unbiased. Now, we take a side,” he is quoted as saying in an article, promising to be “even more harsh, and give everyone what is due to them.” The irony that was not lost on anyone in the country, judging by numerous public comments on social media, that it was ANS TV that had made him iconic and brought him his following. For years, ANS had started and ended its broadcasts with the slogan, “Reliable, Conscientious, Unbiased.”
The government of Azerbaijan not only uses terrestrial broadcasters, such as Aghayev’s Real TV and other television channels that it controls, but also utilises armies of fake accounts to discredit dissident journalists, known as troll factories.
The comments sections of YouTube videos posted to OsmanqiziTV, MeydanTV, and other critical channels are full of comments from people with fake names and accounts. These comments often contain threats, insults, inane arguments or praise for the ruling regime.
But the measures taken by the Azerbaijani government to sideline, marginalise and silence critical voices in exiled media, although impressive, do not appear to be working, according to both Osmanqizi and Muntezir.
“People don’t believe them, definitely,” Muntezir said of the trolls. “It is wrong to say that the people don’t know the truth, and cannot separate fact from fiction. They know the truth very well, and are aware of what is going on in the country. They are aware of the trolls and their work. They know the Azerbaijani government supports them, they know they spread lies.”
According to Muntezir, this troll network is neither professional nor effective. “They open a new profile with no picture, a clean slate. They repeatedly copy and paste the same text, often from presidential speeches. They paste the text under content that is not even political,” he explained, saying that even news stories about football have comments citing Ilham Aliyev’s speeches and heaping praise on the government.
Muntezir said he has a good guess as to the identity of the people behind the troll profiles. “I know it for a fact that they compile reports about their work. It might be a student, or a teacher, or a government employee. Once a week, it is their turn, and they are sat down and made to copy and paste comments. They have to report how many comments they make, and support the data with screenshots. They have dedicated Whatsapp groups,” he said, referencing the smartphone app through which the trolls purportedly communicate and receive their marching orders. “People have repeatedly sent me screenshots of those conversations. They have lists of media sources they are expected to attack. But they burn themselves too fast, they operate unprofessionally,” Muntezir said.
According to Osmanqizi, the effect is exactly the opposite of the goal. She calls it the “boomerang effect.” “We are more popular, and have wider reach. On the other hand, they are not serving their target. They have not proven effective because nowadays, people can differentiate the truth from the lies. People have grown accustomed to the constant attacks accusing us of things we have not done,” she said. “They know it is propaganda. It is a lie machine.”
She said these efforts “only prove that what we are doing is important. The government of Azerbaijan is wasting its resources and money to combat its rivals and critics [because it cannot tolerate criticism].” She calls the attacks on her “the government’s defence mechanism,” because the government does not like being held accountable. “The people understand it’s a matter of accountability,” she said. “[Holding the government accountable] is something media in Azerbaijan should have been doing, but since the free media has been marginalised and destroyed [in the country, the people] appreciate our work.”
Muntezir believes that idea behind troll factories originated in Russia. “Putin started doing this with a higher degree of professionalism. Our [officials] talk about the integration with the west, while copy-pasting all of the disgusting things from Russia at the same time.” He describes the quality of the Azerbaijani trolls as akin to “Chinese-made counterfeits of the original.”
Osmanqizi, no stranger to mass troll attacks on the comments section under her videos, said that the attacks prove the effectiveness of exiled media. “If it was not the case [that exiled media was effective], we would not be targeted… They woke up one day and realised they can no longer influence public opinion. It is being formed beyond their reach and authority. Now they are playing catch-up, and they have not been very creative. They cannot prevent people from watching us. All they can do is smear and harass,” she said.
Crude Accountability’s Zilberman agrees with the ineffectiveness of the government’s tactics. “I think the government is shooting itself in the foot by dishonouring the Azerbaijani women who provide access to information inside their country. In any country, dishonouring somebody personally is really shameful, because the attack is personal, and not professional.”
Journalist Ismail Djalilov recalls his recent experience with trolls
As a former friend and colleague of Mirshahin Aghayev, this was a difficult article for me to write. It took a long time, because in the middle of writing about trolls, I myself have become the target of a wall of faceless, nameless hordes and a mass concerted effort against my online presence. I needed to distance myself from the attacks, and regain my composure, to ensure I could resume working on this article as impartially and honestly as I could.
To make matters worse, much worse, I suspect that I have become the target of attacks not by pro-government trolls, but trolls working for one of the largest opposition parties in Azerbaijan, which declares its adherence to principles of democratic development and freedom.
Following my broadcast of an interview with an opposition group member in which he criticised the leader of a much larger opposition party, I was singled out and barraged by insults, insinuations, and homophobic comments (I am openly gay in a country considered the most homophobic in wider Europe). This was a shocking experience for me, as I myself did not utter a word during the part of the interview about the opposition leader, and considered the comments by my guest to be measured and within ethical norms that did not merit my interruption.
What was shocking and bewildering to me is that these attacks came from the opposition party for which I admitted voting when I lived in Azerbaijan decades ago. I felt betrayed by the very people whose ideals I believed in and whose rights I had been trying to defend, and whose plight I had been trying to publicise in my work.
I understand that in a country with a ruthless regime playing dirty with anyone who dares to dissent, opposition parties must employ some of the government’s tactics in order to protect themselves and survive. If the government employs throngs of trolls to smear the opposition, the opposition must do something similar in order to protect itself. It is understandable that some of the proponents of opposition leaders have taken it upon themselves to engage in smear campaigns and vicious personal attacks against me. They saw me, as the owner of the channel, as ultimately responsible for whatever criticism that was voiced against their beloved leader.
I had time for little other than deleting insults from the comments sections of my videos for two days straight. My Facebook page was shut down numerous times (I lost count after eight suspensions in the span of four days). There were mass complaints against my account for “impersonating someone else.” First, I had to send a picture of my ID showing my personal data. I would regain access. Then, Facebook demanded a picture of me holding the ID. Rinse, repeat.
Once my account was unblocked, I made a passionate, and somewhat angry, appeal to the leader of the party in question. Not mincing words, I told him I had no longer considered him a friend of free press, since he had remained silent in the face of attacks by his party members against a journalist doing his best to do honest work. I called on him to deny that his party employed trolls, like many of his supporters had claimed on my Facebook page and in public comments. I called on his party to reject troll tactics, condemn them, and unequivocally state that trolls are detrimental to civilised public discourse in our country which is under ruthless dictatorial rule.
None of that happened. During an appearance on a YouTube broadcast, his supporters proceeded to call me “an American pig” (I am a United States citizen), and said that “they had lists of those they would hang when they come to power. I was on them.” Strangely, these comments were not blocked or deleted during or in the hours after the broadcast.
Due to the bizarre logic of “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I found myself defended by pro-government newspapers, Facebook pages and journalists. The very same ones that had, a year earlier, run shaming headlines leaking pictures of my wedding (to another man) and calling me an abomination or far worse. The shame of being defended by regime apologists is the worst thing with which I must now come to terms.
At the time, the party denied any involvement. Officials and supporters alike demanded that I produce screenshots of the comments. Though I had deleted most of them out of sheer embarrassment, I was able to send them the ones I and my friends had saved. There were denials that these commenters had been affiliated with the party in question, but my friends pointed to their profiles, which showed that they were. Then the response was that these accounts had been hijacked by government trolls to attack me. At that point, I stopped following the zigzags of disingenuous denials. However, I have heard privately from friends that a few of the party’s members “have been chided,” and were told not to use slurs regarding sexual orientation. I will take that.
The very nature of trolling means people do not use their real names or pictures most of the time. They do not pose for avatar pictures holding their party IDs in their hands. I cannot name names, but I did what I could. In addition, I know for a fact that I was not the first, nor will I be the last person to be attacked by the trolls affiliated with this particular political party. There have been numerous cases before me, and I believe the public was on my side. I feel I was vindicated. I learned a valuable lesson in the process: speaking truth to power does not entail just the regime; at times, it means even the pro-democracy opposition. This was a shocking and unpleasant discovery that informs the direction of my future work.
The author of this piece, Ismail Djalilov, previously worked with Mirshahin Aghayev at ANS. Djalilov and Sevinc Osmanqizi did not coincide with each other at ANS. He is also host of duzdanisaq (Straight Talk), a YouTube channel broadcasting into Azerbaijan.