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Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova attends a ceremony marking the US Independence Day at the residence of the US in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2016.

Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

This story is part of a series, Moral Courage, exploring the dangers journalists face around the world. Learn more below.


No sooner had my interview with Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova begun than she had a request: Could we please focus on her work rather than her life? For, as she noted, when people write about journalists who are harassed, they tend to forget about the essence of why they are persecuted. Framed this way, her request seemed reasonable – but when work and life become inextricably linked, as they are with her, then disentangling the threads in order to bypass a remarkable personality misses an important part of the gestalt.

Yes, her accomplishments as an investigative journalist surely stand on their own. But her life – what she has had to endure as a result of these accomplishments – elevates them still further. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Unfortunately,” she said ruefully, “when journalists write about the bad guys, it turns up consequences for the authors.”

Ms. Ismayilova was born in an Azerbaijan that was still part of the Soviet Union. She was a schoolgirl when she joined the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, known as Komsomol, and as a Pioneer (the league’s group for those aged 9 to 14) recalls writing poems in praise of Lenin and denouncing America. Both her parents were engineers, and her father, a member of parliament and a minister in the government of then-president Heydar Aliyev, was responsible for overseeing the country’s rich oil and gas industry. Their home was continually full of guests, with her parents always hosting and helping fellow citizens – their efforts part of some greater collective good. To outsiders, the Ismayilovs must have seemed like a model Soviet family.

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It took a televised soccer game between the Soviet Union and Turkey in 1986 to open young Khadija’s eyes to the precarious reality of her family’s true existence. Ms. Ismayilova recollects being shocked at seeing her parents supporting Turkey. When she asked what they were doing, her mother, brushing aside her husband’s concerns, divulged the family’s big secret: “We are actually Turks,” Ms. Ismayilova remembers her saying. “Russia has occupied our country. It is the Russians, not the West, who are the imperialists.” If this was not enough for a 10-year old child to digest, her mother also let it be known that she had been a dissident in her youth. “Within 10 minutes, I had learned about empire, occupation, forbidden national identity and censorship,” Ms. Ismayilova said. A few days later, the Komsomal Pioneer burned her journals – and with them, her poems to Lenin.

Looking back at her childhood, Ms. Ismayilova says that many things were done in secret, from listening to the BBC and Voice of America, to her mother buying Gershwin records and her grandmother going to the mosque. By the time she was a teenager, glasnost and perestroika were opening up society and the Stalinist past was being re-examined. Yet despite this newfound openness, there were certain lines in Mr. Aliyev’s Azerbaijan that could not be crossed. Ms. Ismayilova’s father had spoken out against corruption in high places, and after drawing attention to failings within the lucrative energy industry at a cabinet meeting broadcast live, he was summarily fired. Gone overnight and shunned by Mr. Aliyev, who governed through patronage and clan-like loyalty, he would never find a job in Azerbaijan again.

Ms. Ismayilova was in her third year of university when her father was dismissed. With her mother having long left engineering to be a stay-at-home parent, the situation marked a sharp downturn in the family’s fortunes. “He had always held high government office, and because he was not corrupt, we had no money,” she said. “It was a suddenly challenge to buy food.” Her father’s precipitous fall from grace for speaking the truth would prove a portent for Ms. Ismayilova’s own coming battles with the Aliyev family.

Ms. Ismayilova is not a journalist by training. She graduated from the School of Oriental Studies at Baku State University after studying Turkish philology. Fluent in Russian, Turkish and English, she briefly found work as a translator before transitioning into journalism. Her father had wanted her to be an academic (“he had this Soviet fetish for a PhD,” is how she saw it) and in deference to his wishes, she had enrolled for postgraduate studies at the Academy of Sciences in Baku. But after he died, she dropped her studies to work full-time as a journalist. “If journalism had not been so fascinating, perhaps I would have gone along with it.”

Ms. Ismayilova’s early career was stormy as she joined and soon resigned from a series of Azerbaijani newspapers. Looking back at this period, she is unsparing in her self-criticism. “I had a bad temper, would not accept orders, made a lot of mistakes and was too defensive,” she admitted. Three years of relative job stability followed when she was appointed editor of political news for Echo, a Russian paper in Azerbaijan, but she resigned in protest two days after the 2003 election which saw Ilhan Aliyev succeed his father Heydar as president. Echo was pro-government, she said, and had failed to tell the truth about the new leader’s corruption.

Ms. Ismayilova saw the murder of Azerbaijani freelance journalist Elmar Huseynov as an indictment of the media in Azerbaijan.

Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

In the years that followed, Ms. Ismayilova worked for Caspian Business News covering the environment and economy, wrote for Eurasianet (a website based at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, one of the leading centres of scholarship on Eurasia) and spent 18 months in the United States working for Voice of America before returning home to train local journalists. She later became a bureau chief for Radio Liberty (a U.S.-funded platform that offers news and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East), and the editor of Radio Liberty’s team in Baku. While her work focused increasingly on corruption, she did not yet see herself as an investigative journalist.

The murder of Azerbaijani freelance journalist Elmar Huseynov in 2005 changed that. While it was widely believed that Mr. Huseynov was murdered to silence his criticism of Ilhan Aliyev and his father, Ms. Ismayilova also saw his death as an indictment of the media in Azerbaijan. “We were partly responsible for his assassination,” she said. “He was killed because he was the only one investigating the president’s family and their businesses.”

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In trying to understand what came next in her career, it is informative to take note of Ms. Ismayilova’s feeling of guilt – she experienced an allied emotion, shame, a few years later when The Washington Post approached her to fact check their story on the numerous Dubai properties of Ilhan Aliyev’s children. It transpired that Aliyev’s 11-year-old son was the owner of nine waterfront mansions valued at around US$44 million. “I felt ashamed that foreign journalists do this work and we don’t,” Ms. Ismayilova explained.

With her inquiring mind and a gimlet eye, Ms. Ismayilova began digging. She looked into the impunity afforded Mr. Huseynov’s assassins. She exposed how millions of dollars had gone missing from Azerbaijan’s national bank. She revealed the corrupt commercial dealings of Kamaladdin Heydarov, appointed chairman of the state customs committee by Heydar Aliyev in 1995 and minister of emergency situations by Ilhan Aliyev in 2006. Mr. Heydarov’s business empire, ranging from fruit juice to real estate, had garnered massive wealth for this family.

Ms. Ismayilova also began looking into the Panama Papers for links with the Azerbaijani ruling elite. At first, she lacked the technical expertise to mine this trove of millions of leaked documents that detail attorney-client information on hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Paul Radu, co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), taught her how to sort through and interpret the data. What emerged was evidence showing that the president’s wife and daughter owned numerous companies.

Ms. Ismayilova also returned to a previously abandoned investigation of the cellphone company Azerphone – with her new skill set, she was now able to refute the government’s lie that Azerphone was owned by global tech company Siemens. In fact, three companies listed as based in Panama were the owners – and all three belonged to Ilhan Aliyev’s daughter. Regulations for bids and contracts had been bypassed and licences granted without competition or oversight.

At times, the sheer weight of corruption alone must have seemed overwhelming. Ms. Ismayilova revealed that the government had more assets outside the country than within. She exposed fraud in the 2008 national elections. She unearthed connections between the Aliyevs, construction projects and the Eurovision Song Contest, as well as links between the Azerbaijani first family and a bribery scandal involving Luca Volonte, an Italian deputy and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Earlier this year, Mr. Volonte was sentenced to four years in prison for taking US$2.43-million in bribes to dampen European criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record.

After consulting with her lawyer, she wrote a Facebook post about being blackmailed, and how the tactics would not stop her work.

Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

No local journalist in Azerbaijan had gone this far before. The government responded by taking Radio Liberty off the air locally. In response, Ms. Ismayilova moved her program online – the government’s riposte was to jam the satellite.

After Ms. Ismayilova’s first Panama Papers exposé, the intimidation turned more ominous, eventually leading to blackmail. From July, 2011, through January, 2012, cameras were secretly placed in her apartment and she was recorded being intimate with her boyfriend. Her brother was sent stills from the video with a note calling her a whore. Azerbaijan is a very traditional society, where it is taboo for women to have sex outside of marriage. Tradition demanded of her brother that he either kill her, her boyfriend, or the person who made the video.

She recalls finding out about the video from her brother just as she was about to go on air. Remarkably, she went ahead with the program. After consulting with the OCCRP and her lawyer, she wrote a Facebook post about being blackmailed, and how the tactics would not stop her work. The following day, she wrote another post listing her continuing investigations and those in the pipeline. A week later, the Azerbaijani government released the video through a website it claimed belonged to the country’s main opposition party. Ms. Ismayilova’s supporters encouraged her to say the video was a fabrication, but she refused. “I owned it,” she said defiantly. She had seen the government use tactics like this before to break journalists and silence them. She would have none of it.

The government’s blackmail attempt had a paradoxical effect. Banking on the public’s anger at a single woman in an Islamic country having sex, it had miscalculated. The scandal increased Ms. Ismayilova’s profile, making her work more widely known. Family, friends and even Azerbaijan’s Islamic Party rallied to her defence. But behind Ms. Ismayilova’s public veneer of resolve, the personal cost was steep. The relationship with her boyfriend ended. She wondered whether he had been complicit in the filming. The loss of trust impeded new relationships. When she found out that the cameras in her apartment had been installed in her bathroom, too, her body shut down. “I had to smile in public,” she said. “I had to continue working. But I was physically broken.”

In the depths of despair, she recalls a female student she was mentoring at the time telling her to stop whining and push on with her investigations. “That woman saved my life,” Ms. Ismayilova said. She went on to publish the findings from four major investigations that year, the most productive of her career.

New tactics were employed to silence her. She was arrested on trumped-up charges of harassing a colleague, but released when the government’s case collapsed. She was then convicted of evading taxes, another bogus charge, and given a 7½-year jail sentence. After 18 months in prison, her sentence was commuted to two years and three months, with five years of probation. The latter ends soon, but online bullying from government trolls continues.

Ms. Ismayilova’s resilience is remarkable. She told me she is driven by “the people’s right to know.” In her pursuit of the truth, she is therefore sustaining one of the cornerstones of civil society – the right of citizens to hold their leaders accountable. But there are other forces, subtler and less obvious, at play.

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Ms. Ismayilova’s father dared speak out against corruption in Heydar Aliyev’s government. Her mother was a dissident in the days of the Soviet Union.

Aziz Karimov/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Her guilt in relation to Mr. Huseynov’s murder and her shame when The Washington Post came calling on the Dubai property scandal are telling, for shame and guilt are the primary emotions associated with moral injury. This concept refers to damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing or failing to prevent acts that transgress one’s own beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. When we place this definition alongside Ms. Ismayilova’s meticulous exposé of her government’s sleaze, the fit is immediately apparent. Such gross corruption is outrageous – we are morally affronted by it. However, only a select few are prepared to do something about it. Murder, blackmail, character assassination and financial ruin may silence the majority, but not Ms. Ismayilova.

When I asked whether she worried about the risks associated with her reporting, she said: “You get a gut feeling before publication that something bad might happen, but your first thought is to get it out there – because if you do not publish, you feel very bad about it. You feel like you gave up; you were scared. This is not a good feeling to live with. It’s actually easier to spit it out.”

There you have it: the blackmail, public shaming, jail time, the pain of it all – preferable to keeping quiet. Ms. Ismayilova’s father dared speak out against corruption in Heydar Aliyev’s government. Her mother was a dissident in the days of the Soviet Union. Their daughter has gone many steps further in her pursuit of the truth and accountability. In doing so, she has received some notable honours, including a Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

Affirming as awards may be, they cannot explain what set Khadija Ismayilova on her career trajectory. An inquiring mind got her started, but it is an unshakeable moral compass that has kept her at it despite everything thrown at her. Staying true to one’s ethical code can lead to prison in Ilhan Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, and many other places in this world. But there is a rare, precious upside, too. “I feel accomplished,” Ms. Ismayilova said. “Despite everything, I feel happy.”


Moral Courage: About the series

Journalists are key to civil society, keeping readers, viewers and listeners informed of events both local and international. At times, this work entails exposure to grave danger. The factors that motivate journalists to continue this work despite these threats are many and complex, but central to it all is moral courage. Simply put, to some journalists, doing nothing in response to the egregious behaviour of corrupt or genocidal politicians, human traffickers and drug cartels is worse than the repercussions that come from exposing such crimes. These journalists are driven by a moral imperative to risk their own safety and psychological well-being for the story – and the price paid for this steely determination is invariably steep.

Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is an authority on the psychological effects of conflict on journalists. Together with Dr. Feinstein, The Globe and Mail is running Moral Courage, a project that will feature frank and intimate interviews between Dr. Feinstein and a journalist working in hazardous situations around the globe. Each story showcases the work of these journalists, the factors that explain why they feel compelled to pursue such an all-encompassing mission, and the personal consequences their work entails.

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