In this week’s PEN Atlas piece Azerbaijani writer and dissident Emin Milli discusses the power – and corruption – of words and reflects on journalist Khadija Ismayilova’s recent experience of blackmail by the authorities

In Azerbaijan, you often hear from all sorts of different people that words do not matter. Expressions like “bosh-bosh sozler” (empty-empty words) or “bosh-bosh danishir” (empty talking) are common. Our society is extremely sceptical about the power of words. This, in my opinion, has been the major victory and achievement of the autocracy in our country since 1993. But how is it possible to make the whole nation believe that words do not really matter, that they are empty and meaningless? How is it possible? Well, it is possible when people who present themselves or are presented to a society as masters of words, written or spoken, shapers of forms and meanings of the words, start to use the words as barriers behind which they hide their cowardice, venality and hypocrisy.To corrupt the whole of society the regime decided to corrupt words first, to deprive them of their true meaning. Corrupt authoritarianism needs words to lose their meaning. But the victory of corruption here is only temporary. It is temporary because we always have rebels who believe that words are not dead and who bring the words back to life by standing behind them and often suffering the consequences. These people are on the frontline of the struggle for the purity of words, they fight for words free from corruption and thus fight for a society free from corruption.These people have courage not to run away when the corrupt state wants them to pay a high price for reinstating words with their true meaning. One of those courageous people is Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. She started to investigate and write about businesses owned by the family of the president in Azerbaijan and around the world. Of course, she had to be punished for writing the truth and exposing the regime. It was decided that her private life would be exposed in order to tarnish her reputation and to provoke “natural” attacks on her. The regime planted a hidden camera in her bedroom. Her relatives received the incriminating photos of her with her boyfriend. When she refused to be silenced, a video of her and her boyfriend was put online. The official newspaper of the ruling party started to accuse her of lax morals hinting at the video with its intimate content available online.Azerbaijan is a country where the majority of the population considers itself to be Muslim. It is fairly secular after 70 years of communist rule, but socially, it is still very conservative and increasingly more religious. To show a woman in this way is to invite her relatives to defend the honour of the family, to possibly kill her and to invite society to condemn her for her liberal lifestyle. Khadija is also an outspoken atheist who provokes religious circles and there was genuine fear that the masses might want to lynch her in the streets. That might have been “the grand plan” of the regime. But the opposite happened, something miraculous, deeply touching and human. The most conservative religious circles issued a statement in her support praising her courage in exposing the lies and corruption of the ruling elite. Everyone was appalled and even those who usually remain silent and live in fear, spoke up against such an immoral attack against a powerless woman. The government suddenly formally condemned “this crime” despite the prosecutor’s office ignoring Khadija’s officially lodged complaint for several days. The video was not shown on any television in Azerbaijan during prime time, something that had happened before with other journalists and unfortunately had silenced them.Questions keep going through my mind when I think about Khadija’s case. Why did the corrupt state with their billions of dollars and the absolute monopoly on violence fail to silence one woman and basically step back, why were religious and conservative circles on her side and not against her, why was a socially conservative society overwhelmingly on her side? Perhaps because everyone in our society started to feel in this particular case the power of true words and saw the courage of this woman who stands behind her words no matter what the consequences? She tried to fight the root of corruption in our society – the corruption of words. Only free words can liberate millions of hearts and minds from fear and corruption.Khadija today is the center of the Free Word in Azerbaijan. It is one of those cases when one person turns into an institution and becomes the symbol of struggle for freedom of expression. She made many people believe again that words are not empty, but can become powerful tools in the transformation of human conscience and social reality. There is still a long way to go for our society to declare independence from corruption, but her act of courage undoubtedly leads us in that direction.About the AuthorEmin Milli is a writer and dissident living in Azerbaijan. In 2009, he was imprisoned for two and a half years for his critical views about the government of Azerbaijan. Amnesty International considered that Emin Milli was a  prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and association and campaigned for his release. He was conditionally released in November 2010, after serving 16 months of his sentence.

Additional Information

Khadija Ismayilova is an award-winning professional journalist based in Baku. Between 2008 and 2010 she served as Bureau Chief of RFE/RL which she left to host full-time apopular phone-in radio programme, ‘After Work’, on the Azerbaijani RFE service, Azadliq Radio. She has held editor positions with several Azerbaijani newspapers since 1997 and as a reporter for EurasiaNet and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.”Taken from News Xchange You can read more about Khadija’s case here in Index on Censorship and here, in the Independent.