Blackmailing of Reporter in Azerbaijan Pits Web Freedom against Free Press

Should a Houston-based hosting company be forced to take down a site attacking a journalist?
by Published on
Taken from Khadija Ismayilova's Facebook profile.
Khadija Ismayilova

Many people consider journalistic freedom and a reporter’s ability to investigate public corruption an essential element of a free society. And many also support Internet freedom—and don’t want governments taking down websites. But what happens when those two ideals conflict?

International media and human rights groups who advocate for the freedom of information are in an awkward position this week as they try to defend an award-winning Azerbaijani journalist who is being blackmailed through a website hosted by a Houston- based company.

Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has published several reports on corruption in the cabinet of Ilham Aliyev, president since 1993 of the former Soviet republic nestled between the Caspian Sea, Russia, Armenia and Iran. The blackmail campaign against Ismayilova started shortly after she published a hard-hitting piece exposing the business interests of the president’s daughter.

On March 7, the journalist, who works for Radio Free Europe, received a letter saying she would be “hugely embarrassed” if she didn’t stop her investigations, according to her Facebook page. Ismayilova announced publicly through social media that she would not be intimidated by the blackmail. The next week a website appeared—almost an exact copy of the country’s opposition party website, the New Equality Party, a rival of the president’s party. At the top of the page was a video of Ismayilova, who is unmarried, having sex with a man. The video was filmed with a spy camera inside her home. The day before the website was launched, an anonymous article disparaging Ismayilova appeared in the official government newspaper of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. The article attacked her character and professionalism.

“Khadija is different than Azeri girls, because of her uncontrolled vagabond life, irresponsible behavior, strange outlook which contradicts the views of Azeri girls,” the article stated. “Friends of Khadija often come together at the Azadliq Radio’s office in Baku after the office closes and drink until the morning…Khadija is a traditional visitor of expensive bars and clubs. She is fond of alcoholic drinks. She has often mocked the values, ethical behavior of standard Azeri girls.”

Azerbaijan is a conservative Muslim country that borders Iran. Johann Bihr, head of the Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, said that showing Ismayilova in such a light could put her life at risk. In a press release, Reporters Without Borders, called the video and blackmail “despicable.” Journalists are routinely intimidated, kidnapped and sometimes even killed in Azerbaijan and the crimes are rarely investigated or solved, according to the nonprofit advocacy group. “This unfortunately, is not surprising for Azerbaijan,” Bihr says. “There are many elements in the government still linked with organized crime. By targeting the opposition website and Khadiya Ismayilova they killed two birds with one stone.”

The mirror website with the incriminating video is hosted by HostGator.com a Houston-based company. HostGator.com hosts nearly eight million domains or nearly 1 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, according to the company. Human rights and media advocacy groups want the blackmail site taken down but don’t want to infringe on freedom of the Internet, a topic that has been extremely sensitive recently with global protests over the introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. The law, introduced in January by Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, would have given the U.S. government greater power to censor the Internet. Massive global protests killed SOPA before it could be voted out of congressional committee.

“It’s a bit delicate,” says Bihr on taking down the blackmail site. “We don’t want to put too much responsibility on the host provider, and we don’t think it’s their job to act as the Internet police. Instead, we are focusing on a criminal investigation and the judiciary.”

But it’s unclear what criminal investigative body has the authority to take down such a site. Last week, the Azerbaijani government said in a statement that it would do its “utmost to expose and punish those standing behind this dirty act.” The Azerbaijani Prosecutor General`s Office announced that it had “launched an investigation into the intrusion into the private life of Khadija Ismayilova.”

Bihr says the government’s comments are ironic, considering many people believe the government facilitated the attacks against Ismayilova. HostGator.com has said it would need a U.S. court order to take down the site. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Taylor Hawes said in a written statement, “In the present case, we are not aware of any allegations brought to our attention by those allegedly aggrieved. When we receive allegations of wrongdoing that are not in line with our terms of service, we certainly seek to find out the facts to the best of our ability.”

Recently, the site was blocked in the United States though it can still be viewed in Azerbaijan, according to media watchdog groups. It’s unclear who blocked the site in the United States or why they did it. HostGator.com didn’t respond to calls for comment. Bihr and others hope that the site will soon be down in Azerbaijan as well. “It’s no doubt one of the worst attacks I’ve seen on a journalist’s reputation,” he says.

Jonathan McNamara contributed some reporting to this story. 

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.