On February 1, 2024, Forbidden Stories, a network of journalists which ensures the work of journalists facing threats continues, launched a new global investigative project called “The Baku Connection.” According to Forbidden Stories, the project picks up on the work started by the journalists at Abzas Media, an independent news outlet targeted by the Azerbaijani state in November 2023. Numerous Abzas media journalists and editors were arrested in November on bogus corruption charges and still await trial in Baku. Some 40 journalists from 15 media outlets have joined the project since its launch, continuing the investigations the Abzas Media team started.
The initiative came after Abzas Media team asked for others to continue their work. In a letter addressing the Abzas Media team and announcing the launch of the project, Forbidden Stories founder and executive director Laurent Richard wrote:
Dear Elnara, Hafiz, Sevinc, Mahammad, Nergiz, Ulvi,
You will probably be reading these few lines from Azerbaijani jails, prey to the same conditions you tirelessly condemned in your investigations. The near-certainty that your work would one day land you in prison never made you back down.
We had no choice but to raise up to your determination, and your call to investigative journalists did not go unheard. Over the past two months, 40 reporters from 14 media outlets have joined forces with Forbidden Stories to pursue your investigations.
Beyond borders, we have written what you can no longer write. This regime that holds you prisoner is also the one that wields a great deal of influence around the world, thanks to gas.
Beyond borders, we have asked the questions you can no longer ask. Including to our politicians and multinationals who regularly pay a visit to your country, Azerbaijan.
Your arrests did not stop the stories.
In the hope that you will soon be released,
In the meantime, the persecution of its journalists prompted Abzas Media to relocate its newsroom outside of Azerbaijan. According to the media outlet's recently appointed editor-in-chief, a well-known investigative journalist, Leyla Mustafayeva, the outlet will continue its independent reporting with a new team spread across Europe. In a statement issued by Abzas Media, it read that due to ongoing criminal charges levelled against the entire editorial staff, the management and collaborators of the platform, “at the request of the management [team] of AbzasMedia, who [are] in prison, Leyla Mustafayeva will perform the position of temporary editor-in-chief during this period. She will supervise the work of the new editorial team scattered in different countries of Europe.” Mustafayeva vowed to continue the work in a short and succinct statement, “we are going to say our word in writing.”
Abzas Media journalists are among at least eleven recently arrested journalists in Azerbaijan. But the numbers change quickly and often on the whim of the authorities who have a long history of silencing critics. In its most recent country report, Reporters Without Borders wrote, “President Ilham Aliyev has wiped out any semblance of pluralism, and since 2014, he has sought ruthlessly to silence any remaining critics.” The organization ranked the country 151 out of 180 countries in 2023. In a separate statement, the organization condemned the arrests.
The arrests took place just months ahead of the snap Presidential Election scheduled for February 7, in which the incumbent President Ilham Aliyev is set to secure another seven-year term given a near-total absence of legal political opposition.