The 2013 Tully Free Speech Award Winner, Azerbaijani independent journalist Idrak Abbasov, knows firsthand the price of freedom of speech. Abbasov was so badly beaten by SOCAR (The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) officials on April 18, 2012 while filming the illegal demolition of housing in an area of Baku, Azerbaijan, that he was hospitalized for days. His eyes were swollen shut and internal damage to his kidneys and liver required him to have surgery. Abbasov believes that the SOCAR would have killed him had his brother, also hospitalized from the attack, not come to his help.
The incident sparked international outrage, with groups such as the European Parliament, the Index on Censorship and the Human Rights Watch drawing attention to Abbasov’s predicament and the status of free speech under the regime of recently re-elected president Ilham Aliyev. Aliyev won his a third term on Oct. 9, a whole day before the actual election. Third terms are illegal in Azerbaijan; his government rewrote the constitution to allow for the circumstance.
“We are lacking for nothing in our constitution, when you compare it to the United States,” Abbasov said to a room full of Syracuse students and professors at the award ceremony Oct. 24 at the oyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse 3. “The problem is that it is not upheld.”
Freedom of speech is detailed in the Azerbaijani constitution. However, the government controls more than 70% of the newspapers and all of the television channels in the former Soviet territory. Only a few independent newspapers exist, and they all exercise extreme caution as they try to deliver honest journalism to Azerbaijanis.
The Azerbaijani government has been trying to control speech for decades, and have often resorted to extreme measures to maintain a tight grasp.
“They could jail me or kill me,” Abbasov said. “And that’s the good thing they could do.” He admitted that he was not living unafraid, but that, as so many must contend with in war-torn countries, fear is something everyone must get used to.
“When I write my articles and say my speech, I forget about being afraid,” Abbasov said. “People whisper to me, ‘why do you say this aloud?’ They say, ‘be wise.’ They are afraid to talk in public. I am not."
But there are always risks. He has parked his car while taking his children to school and returned to discover that his brakes were cut while was gone. He has received threats from government officials.
And, of course, the assault.
Abbasov speaks Azerbaijani and Russian, and communicated through his translator Sadig Gulaghayev. Abbasov is slender and balding, and sat with his legs crossed elegantly over each other. When he spoke of his passion, though, his energy was exuberant; he leaned back and forth in his chair and spoke animatedly with his hands. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, he admitted his story cavalier, a way that could come only from someone so used to dangerous circumstance: the individuals from the Caucasus, from the Middle East. Those who every day must weigh their actions and passions. For a father with three children and a wife who supports his work, Abbasov stays resilient in his desire to deliver journalism.
“I know very well what’s happening [in my country] and [in] my profession,” Abbasov said. “I know the consequences.”
Idrak Abbasov bears witness to the struggles of citizens fighting a government trying to quash free speech and the problems a freelance Azerbaijani journalist must face.
“Ten of my closest friends are in jail,” Abbasov said. “Others have been murdered.” He was referring to Elmar Huseynov, shot in 2005, the perpetrator never uncovered. Abbasov clarified that a fake investigation was opened a few years ago. Huseynov’s murder was blamed on Azerbaijanis living in Georgia, though the Georgian government denied such people existed. Other friends—editors of newspapers, outspoken journalists—have been forced to flee Azerbaijan, or have simply disappeared, stripped of their finances and homes.
To report in Azerbaijan means having to fight against ingrained corruption. From birth, Abbasov explained, the government initiates forms of bribery to keep citizens under control. They are bribed with food vouchers, Abbasov said, to enhance government trust and keep citizens away from schools and publications that may enhance education.
Abbasov’s path was somewhat different. Born in the former Soviet Union, he attended school not for journalism but for economics, though his 20-year-long career began in writing and reporting. And when the Soviet Union collapsed while Abbasov was a high schooler, he found that the world was much larger than he had ever known, and the ability to learn from other people and countries far away was inspirational.
And while he has become known as a human rights journalist, Abbasov—dubbed by The Guardian as Azerbaijan’s “leading journalist”—explained that his writing allows him to cover multiple facets of journalism and storytelling. The challenge is always the same, though: government oppression.
But does a man who was beaten by government officials, forced to watch his friends be jailed, lived through wartime, while struggling to find avenues to express his voice love the country that oppresses him so?
“Of course,” Abbasov said, without hesitation. “It is the land of my father, my grandfather, their fathers. It is where I have cultivated my garden, where I plant the nice flowers and trees. I have lots of friends and relatives there. I see familiar faces.”
It is, however, the global community of journalism—that so many others like him, Abbasov claimed, are simply doing their jobs and responsibilities and exercising free speech—that Abbasov finds truly great. Places that lack democracy, he said, understand the shared difficulty of freedom of speech.
“Freedom of speech can be abused,” Abbasov said. “But if there is a lack of freedom of speech in a country, there is no way to take advantage of it or abuse it.”