Initially seen as an amiable man unsuited to the harsh realities of politics, he proved himself a worthy heir of his father by getting a tight grip on all the reins of power and cracking down hard on opponents. Any unauthorized coverage of the president, his wife and other family members is completely off-limits for the media. Anything can happen to those who dare violate the taboo, including smear campaigns, death threats and abduction. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismaylova and reporters for the opposition newspaper Azadlig are among the recent victims.
There was a sharp increase in repression in response to major opposition protests in March 2011. Appearing to panic in the wake of the Middle East uprisings, the regime jailed young bloggers and activists such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, who had used Facebook and other social networks to issue calls for demonstrations. Reporters were arrested or were physically prevented from working. Foreign journalists were refused visas or were deported.
Although fiercely repressive domestically, the Aliev family is never short of petrodollars for promoting Azerbaijan’s image internationally, until now with success.
Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest and Internet Governance Forum in Baku 2012 is the crowning achievement of the government’s intense lobbying. However, by turning the international spotlight on Azerbaijan, the regime has given civil society an unexpected opportunity to make its voice heard. The battle lines are drawn. It is up to the international media to help make the difference.