Caucasus Crackdown

07.08.15 8:30 PM ET

‘Azerbaijan’s Dictator Wants Me Dead’

With billions of dollars squandered on the European Games and dozens of activists in jail, the president of a putatively “strong state” is terrified of a small Berlin-based online edition.

The dust has not yet settled over the inaugural European Games, but Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is already doling out pompous awards for a “job well-done.” His own wife Mehriban received a state medal named after Aliyev’s father and former KGB general, Heydar Aliyev, for contributing to organizing the Games.

But what was meant to be Azerbaijan’s star moment on the international stage turned into a public relations disaster.

The European Games became the greatest waste of public resources in our history.

Only official records estimate the costs associated with the Games at $1.2 billion. Billions and billions were spent, according to other accounts. Six thousand athletes (not all of them first class) were invited from 50 European countries, with all the accommodation and travel expenses covered from our state budget.

Lady Gaga was paid a whopping $2 million to perform one song at the opening ceremony. To put this in a wider context, a teacher subsists on a monthly salary of $150 in Azerbaijan, and Karabakh war veterans eke out a living of $50 monthly from the state. Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Oktay Asadov said recently that “education abroad is not necessary” for Azerbaijanis while the children of the President and ministers, wealthy elite kids study at the best universities in the West.

The costly hotels (worth a total of $10 billion) belonging to the President’s daughters were brimming with guests. The first family profited from this “patriotic” sporting event more than anyone else.

Aliyev exploited the Games as a public relations stunt to not only cement his personal power but shine on the world stage while cracking down at home.

Preparations for the Games featured not only mind-boggling expenses and lavish constructions. The President meticulously cleaned up dissent at home. The last 60 independent NGOs in the country were shut down in 2014. The country now has about 100 political prisoners.

The only reason the President could not jail me this time (like he did it twice before) is because I have been based in Germany since 2013.

The government spared no resources, in hopes of positive media coverage. But the Games turned into a PR disaster for the government and its international image. Most international media outlets shed light on the dismal human rights records in Azerbaijan and endemic corruption, as opposed to Aliyev’s putative achievements and accolades.

Barring leading news editions like The Guardian and ARD, as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International, from covering the event did not help the government either.

Increasingly frustrated with PR attempts gone awry, the President had to unleash his wrath on someone. This someone may well be us.

The rising popularity of Meydan TV started to rile the government. Created with modest means in 2013, Meydan TV is an independent online media platform that provides a balanced and credible coverage of social issues, corruption and rights concerns—issues silenced in the official parlance of state media.

Meydan TV is cooperating with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Berlin on investigative stories and just inked a partnership with The Guardian that republishes our stories.

In the past months and especially weeks, Meydan TV stories have been used, picked up and massively cited by Azerbaijani and especially international media, including The Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, BBC, The Guardian, etc.

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I personally gave 20 interviews, including to ARD, ZDF, and multiple other German and international media platforms. The story about fake British tourists at the European Games that BBC ran referring to Meydan TV was the fourth-most-read story as of press time.

By the end of the European Games, Aliyev sent me a message via his Sports Minister Azad Rahimov threatening me and vowing to punish me for organizing “the international campaign against the state.”

“What harm has Azerbaijani state done to you? We will get you wherever you are and the state will punish you for this smear-campaign against the state that you have organized. You will get punished for this. You will not be able to walk freely in Berlin or anywhere else. You must know this,” the chilling message read.

Never mind that my friends are in jail. Never mind that I was jailed twice for “hooliganism” and disrupting the peace. Never mind that my father died while I was in jail.

The arrogance of power is shocking because they think that Azerbaijani citizens must be thankful for the mere fact of breathing and not being killed or tortured yet.

Just a couple of days after the closing ceremony of the Games, four Meydan TV reporters—Ayten Alakbarova, Şirin Tire Abbasov, Natiq Cavadli, and Elnur Muxtar—were stopped at the border while traveling to Georgia.

Officials informed our journalists that they were under a “travel ban” and not allowed to leave Azerbaijan.

If recent history taught us anything, this move is a harbinger of a criminal case against Meydan TV. Meydan TV is becoming the primary target of media repressions. For us, it is recognition of success. Being viewed as a formidable challenge to the repressive government without having a modicum of its resources is a badge of honor.

Now imagine that just for writing this and criticizing the President and his family business, you could be killed or banned from leaving the country.

That is our story and the reality we live in. But we will continue to do our job risking lives and livelihoods in a struggle for freedom.