Clara Zid, May 2019
Imagine being a journalist in Azerbaijan, where journalists are threatened and imprisoned by a government that spends millions to censor their news sites. Imagine having to run away from your country, because if not, you would be assassinated. Imagine that, despite everything, you are running the most popular TV show in your country. That is the life of Ganimat Zahid, founder of Turan.TV and editor-in-chief of Azadliq.info (“freedom” in Azeri).
Zahid is in the ‘Reporters Without Borders’ list of 100 Information Heroes, for his continuous effort to keep the Azerbaijani people informed: “When I left the country, I did not sit back, I created the first television program in the history of Azerbaijan which was broadcasted via satellite, two times a week: Azerbaijan Hour”, says Ganimat Zahid.
Now the program is the most popular in Azerbaijan, with 2 million viewers, and has been the starting point of Turan TV, that now broadcasts “the TV shows of all serious videoblogers” 24 hours a day. Zhadid is proud to have created a TV channel “without the support of donor organizations: hundreds of people have donated anonymously, for the sake of freedom of speech in Azerbaijan”.
Turan TV has over half a million viewers in Azerbaijan and, according to its founder, “it’s an incomparable project, there’s no such thing anywhere”.
The newspaper Azadliq.info was born in 1989. Ganimat is its editor-in-chief since 2003. On November 2007 he was arrested, with charges of “hooliganism”. Ganimat spent two and a half years in prison and after his release in 2011, he and his family relocated to France, with the help of Reporters Without Borders.
“I remember getting personal threats against me back in the early 2000s, the last death threat was in 2007 and, then, they did not kill me but detained me”, explains Zahid. Then everything turned into some kind of a horror movie: “My children were threatened, then I took them to France, where I received information that authorities were preparing assassination attempts against me. Then my relatives were arrested in Baku and condemned for 6 years each, but they were released because they had nothing against them”.
The situation for independent journalists’ in Azerbaijan is desperate. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), physical attacks, threats and harassment against journalists are common and rarely prosecuted. Also, “authorities have imprisoned several notable journalists and the charges against many of them are fabricated and politicized”, according to CPJ.
“There are no free professional media resources left in Azerbaijan, officials treat journalists as outcasts and attacks on journalists are not being investigated! Three of our employees are now serving time in prison”, assures Zahid. To make things worse, the authorities are not pursuing only journalists, but even users of social networks.
“Virtualroad is oxygen for the Azerbaijan free press! They save us from inevitable death”
To silence Azadliq has been a high priority for the government of Azerbaijan for many years, and they spare no expense in attacking and censoring the website azadliq.info, as well as other free media. The cyber attacks began already in 2013, and shortly thereafter, Azadliq.info was migrated to Virtualroad.org’s secure hosting infrastructure. It quickly become clear to Virtualroad.org that many of the DDoS attacks were directly linked to the government’s ministries.
How do you feel when the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies is launching cyber attacks against you? “Not very enthusiastic. This is just wild and disgusting”, Zahid denounces. After the attacks came the government blockade, in 2017, using expensive high technology called Deep Packet Inspection, according to Virtualroad.org’s assessment.
“Both the DDoS attacks and the blockade affected us badly. However, the DDoS attacks could be mitigated with the help of Virtualroad, but the blockade still severely limits our capabilities to reach our readers”, says Zahid. They calculate they have lost more than 50% of their readers since the attacks began.
In April 2018 Virtualroad discovered how to evade the blockade. Ganimat assures: “Virtualroad is oxygen for the Azerbaijan free press! They save us from inevitable death. And for Azerbaijani readers, it’s as important as for its journalists. These guys just do amazing work, we are very grateful!”. Where did Ganimat hear first about Virtualroad? He answers: “I’m not a religious person, but I think they were just sent by God”.