“Protect your voice!”: an interview with Azerbaijani journalist Anar Orujov

, by Arnisa Halili

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

“Protect your voice!”: an interview with Azerbaijani journalist Anar Orujov
Anar Orujov runs his Internet TV station from Germany.

Azerbaijan went to the ballot box yesterday. Anar Orujov, however, is not in his home country during the election process: the journalist and founder of the first internet TV station “Channel13” has fled from the authoritarian government there. In this interview, he talks about his time as a journalist in Azerbaijan, about social media as a form of protest and about his visions for a democratic future for the country. He also explains why “13” is not an unlucky number to him and why a holiday in Spain is impossible.

Some background context

Azerbaijan is a small country with a population of around 10 million, situated in the South Caucasus region between Eastern Europe and Asia. After the communist era, the formerly Soviet Union-controlled country came under the authoritarian rule of Gaydar Aliyev, and, since 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev. Since then, Azerbaijani politics have been tarnished by corruption and human rights violations. Most recently, the country made headlines because of a German CDU politician: Karin Strenz stands accused a conflict of interest by the Council of Europe. She has been exceptionally uncritical of Azerbaijan, allegedly receiving money from the authoritarian state in return. For the time being, however, Azerbaijan faces domestic political challenges: President Aliyev called early parliament elections which took place yesterday, 9th February, but which were boycotted by the main opposition forces.

Anar Orujov: an introduction

One of the voices speaking out against the authoritarian regime is Anar Orujov. In 2006, together with his brother Aziz Orujov and his wife Ulviyya Mammadova, he founded the “Caucasus Media Investigation Center”, from their main project Internet TV station “Channel13” was born two years later. The internet channel takes a critical look at the Azerbaijani government, reports on human rights violations and investigates problems in different regions of the country. He previously studied journalism and public administration in Baku and gained experience in working with international organizations.

He now lives in Germany and is studying “Corporate Social Responsibility and NGO Management” at the University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhein-Sieg. His WhatsApp status says in Azerbaijani: “Please note that I have several professions and study at the university at the same time. I can only reply to messages late!” This interview reveals that this status describes the busy journalist very well.

Why did you leave Azerbaijan?

I left Azerbaijan in 2014 when the government changed the constitution and started to put pressure on free media and independent NGOs. In 2013, the president Ilham Aliyev decided he wanted a third mandate. The main political parties and many non-governmental organizations were against it, because it did not respect the maximum length of time for wihch a president could serve up to then. In early August 2014, the government then launched a criminal investigation against some international and local NGOs. During this time, I was the head of “Channel13” and received an arbitrary call from the prosecution authority, that I was invited to testify about the criminal cases. They tried to get me to sign a ready-made declaration that international organizations should not interfere in Azerbaijan’s internal problems, as there were no human rights violations. A week later, many NGO members were arrested or faced travel bans. The government also officially announced that it had initiated criminal proceedings against a number of NGOs, including my NGO, the “Caucasus Media Investigation Center” (CMIC). After receiving this information, I decided to go to Germany.

What does your everyday life as a journalist in Germany look like?

My day starts at six in the morning and ends at ten in the evening. First of all, I check what is happening in Azerbaijan. Then I discuss with my colleagues about who should go to the where the action is happening. It is also part of my daily work to meet with Azerbaijanis who are in Germany for political or other reasons. I try to motivate them to participate in the political life of Azerbaijani migrants in order to bring about a political change in Azerbaijan. I love my work, which is why I can never relax. I tried to go on holiday to Spain with my wife, but I ended up always having my phone in my hand.

Channel13: Minus multiply minus equals plus

You founded the Internet station “Channel13”. Why did you decide to call it this?

Some people associate the number “13” with bad luck. We used this “unlucky” name and the unfortunate situation of free media in Azerbaijan and made a logical calculation for us: minus multiply minus equals plus. Bad luck and bad luck should turn into luck.

What makes your channel so special?

I can proudly say that we are the most popular news channel in Azerbaijan. We work mainly on YouTube and Facebook, and YouTube is our most popular channel with 476 000 subscribers. Last month we had about 20 000 hits from two million visitors.

How does your team work?

At the moment, there are 15 of us in the team. Five work outside Azerbaijan, while the other ten are on site. In case something unexpected happens, we have staff in different locations who are able to produce content and upload it to our YouTube channel. Our communication is based on various messenger services in which we produce content. In Azerbaijan, the employees have no access to our YouTube channel due to security reasons. Therefore, all our content is uploaded by employees based in Europe. Of course, people in Azerbaijan can watch our YouTube channel as the government does not have access to block YouTube content. So, we can report daily and receive millions of hits, even though our official website Kanal13.tv was blocked for five years from 2015. Last but not least, we have a German and Azerbaijani WhatsApp number for “Channel13”. Every day, 150 to 200 messages from people reporting social and political problems reach us on WhatsApp.

“It’s not about who gets elected”

What is the main objective for your team? What motivates you?

It is hard to believe (laughs), but we really want to make Azerbaijan a democratic country. 100 years ago, we had a democratic republic with five different political parties. Today there is only one party and its supporters in parliament. We can use the power of social networks to increase the public pressure on the government. In 2017, my brother was arrested: he was accused of violating the lawful order of the police. That was when we realized how important our work was to put pressure on the government: Apparently, we posed a real threat. Fortunately, due to strong pressure from the Council of Europe and international organisations, he was released after eleven months instead of the six years he had been sentenced to. The Azerbaijani Government does indeed fear us. That is why we have never stopped reporting.

Since 2003 Ilham Aliyev has ruled the country with an iron fist. Today, 9th February 2020, his party will be “re-elected”. Do you hope that the upcoming elections will bring about change?

There will be no direct impact from the elections, but they give us the opportunity to show what is happening in Azerbaijan. The candidates of the ruling party are facing strong criticism from the local population during the pre-election period. Citizens accuse their elected representatives of not having visited their constituencies for almost ten years and of never having discussed local problems in parliament. In the last 30 years, the population has not truly been allowed to decide who represents them: who they vote for is not important, as the current regime has used every possible method of rigging the results of all elections. I believe that the main objective of the forthcoming election is to change the population’s opinion in terms of political participation. Therefore, we must use all communication channels to tell each of them that they must protect their own voice and participate in the elections! We can at least show the authorities that it’s not easy get away with rigging results.

The Council of Europe’s investigations into corruption from Azerbaijan

CDU member Karin Strenz and former CSU member of the Bundestag Eduard Lintner are accused of having spoken positively about Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe in exchange for money. What do you think about these alleged attempts at bribery?

I think it is very dangerous if the Azerbaijani government can bribe members of the German parliament in the Council of Europe. If it’s true, Karin Strenz has not only damaged her own image, but that of her entire party. However, there are always people who are fighting corruption: last year, for example, Azerbaijani activists organised a protest in front of the CDU headquarters and called on party members not to engage in corrupt relations with the Azerbaijani government.

In your opinion, how should the EU deal with authoritarian states like Azerbaijan?

The best way would be to show the Azerbaijani government that it must bear the consequences if it does not comply with international agreements. Effective methods could be visa and travel bans on individual members of parliament and government who disregard democratic values and participated in violation of human rights. Secondly, most of the families of top corrupted officials of the government live in Europe. After their term in office, these officials will invest in hotels, restaurants and businesses throughout Europe. European governments must check where this money is coming from. If corruption is suspected, they should not be allowed to invest in European countries.

Do you consider Azerbaijan’s accession to the EU possible in the future?

Currently, around 100 people are in prison due to political activism. The number of political prisoners shows that there is resistance to this regime. The democratic culture in Azerbaijan is there. This country was the first Islamic country to enforce the right to vote for women and it will also be possible to improve the situation in terms of human rights, freedom of expression, etc. I strongly believe there is a chance.

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