Again, the administration seemed to meet the RFE/RL story with silence. However, it was not inactive. Unbeknownst to Ismayilova, the state phone company during the first week in July installed a landline in the apartment she lived in from mid-June to early September 2011. The landline allowed the authorities to spy on her using a videocamera concealed in her bedroom. Ismayilova had a boyfriend. In conservative Islamic circles, young people were forbidden to engage in sex before marriage. To do so brought shame not only on themselves, but on their families.

Ismayilova, however, knew nothing of the surveillance. She was working on another story about President Aliyev’s family investments. Research was leading her to conclude that the Azenco construction company, which had won contracts for multiple high-profile and expensive public building projects, was owned by a series of front companies; she suspected the first family stood behind them. One of the projects was a lavish concert hall to host the next widely-followed Eurovision song contest. In January 2012, she sent inquiries to government agencies as she tried to substantiate her hypothesis.

For this story, Ismayilova decided to work with both RFE and OCCRP. She had also been busy consulting to CNBC television for a report that further explored the president’s real estate holdings in Dubai. The report, “Filthy Rich,” aired on February 23. That month, the German ZEIT Foundation awarded her its annual Gerd Bucerius Free Press of Eastern Europe prize. The foundation cited her “astute articles on corruption, the abuse of power and breaches of human rights,” as well as “her discomforting, fearless stories.” [26]

March 7, 2012. But on Wednesday, March 7, Ismayilova’s investigation came to an abrupt halt. Her sister-in-law telephoned to say an envelope had arrived that morning, with an unknown (later proved fake) return address and postmarked Moscow. Although Ismayilova was living with a sister at the time, she was officially registered at her brother’s apartment. In the letter were graphic photos of Ismayilova and her boyfriend, having sex. There was a letter as well. It said: “Whore, behave. Or you will be defamed.” As she would soon learn, other copies of the letter and the photos, which were clearly stills from a video, went to her boyfriend, to other relatives and to the opposition media. Ismayilova was certain the package came from the Azerbaijani security service or even from the president’s office.

Her brother, a conservative Muslim, had opened the package. He was headed over, bent on revenge, said his wife. “Well, that’s what is expected to happen when your sister is having sex without marriage,” comments Ismayilova. “You’re supposed to kill someone. Either the guy, or your sister, or both… He is very conservative.” Her first thought was to deflect her brother which, with the help of a friend and other relatives, she was able to do. Her second thought was for her work.

Ismayilova recognized that the timing was deliberate: “They’ve been waiting, and when I was doing the next story, and they knew that I’m doing the next story, they sent me this letter,” she says. Her first reaction was fury. “I was really angry,” she recalls.“I was kind of ready to get [the threat], because two of my colleagues [from opposition papers] had been filmed secretly before, and the footage had been shown on TV,” she says. In those cases, the video aired in prime time, as part of the news program, and spared no details. “Every critical journalist would expect something to happen,” she adds. She had even bought a tent, intending to put it up inside her apartment for privacy, “but it was just too hot in summer.” The tent idea, she notes wryly, came from Libya’s Col. Moammar Khadafy, who carried a tent everywhere to avoid surveillance.

I’d been thinking about what will I do if it happens? And I never had to answer [before]. I thought that I don’t know what I will do. I was angry, and I realized what I fear is that I will step back.

She also realized that she needed advice. So she called OCCRP to talk to Sullivan and Radu, and RFE to speak with her editor, Kenan Aliyev. OCCRP’s first concern was her safety. As in Russia, where at least 17 journalists had been killed in the previous decade, Azerbaijani reporters were in danger. Just four months earlier, on November 19, 2011, journalist Rafiq Tagi had been attacked by two unknown assailants. Tagi, a critic of the Azerbaijani government, Iran and political Islam, died four days later of his stab wounds. [27] On March 26, 2011, six masked men had reportedly abducted and beaten Seymur Haziyev, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Azadliq . He reported that his assailants warned him not to criticize the president in print. On April 2, police detained several journalists covering anti-government protests and prevented them from photographing and interviewing participants. The next day, another Azadliq journalist, Ramin Deko, was reportedly abducted, assaulted and warned not to write critical articles. [28]

“Both [Sullivan and Radu] asked if I wanted to get out of the country right away,” remembers Ismayilova. “I said no, no, no.” Then together they walked through the likely scenarios. All three recognized that, because the photos were video stills, it was only a matter of time until the video itself was made public. “What will likely happen if you stop reporting?” Sullivan asked her hypothetically.

Is that [blackmail] information going to get out? Are you going to get all the tapes? And the probability is you’re not… Then you look at the downside: what’s going to happen if this information comes out?... There are a lot of people [in Azerbaijan] whose attitude would be that she should be stoned to death. So the downside is pretty heavy. There’s no good answer either way. She had to make some decisions to what was important to her in her life.

Radu suggested she should go public with the threat, and in principle Sullivan agreed. “The best way is to call their bluff and fight it out,” says Sullivan, “because what they’re trying to do is illegal and immoral.”

But it’s not your life, you’re not facing this thing. She has to face this thing… The work that she’s done on the government of Azerbaijan has gotten other people killed for far less… Nobody really knows what that’s like to go through—the risks, the threats, the extortion.

RFE’s Aliyev offered full support. “We are fully behind you,” he told her. “You’re being targeted because of your work. I as an editor, and we as a company, will be behind you.” Meanwhile, Ismayilova was scheduled to host her radio show in about two hours. Aliyev counseled her to stay home. “Kenan told me to stay home and stay safe and we will figure something out. I said no, I’m going in and running my show, and I’m not going to show that I’m upset,” says Ismayilova. She did go in, and told only her producer that if anything happened, he should take over. “I know that an angry journalist is not a good journalist,” Ismayilova told herself. “So [I told myself] I don’t want to be an angry journalist. I will keep my anger under control.”

After the show, Ismayilova consulted with her lawyer. She wanted to understand the legal consequences of any action she might take to defend herself. In addition, she had to decide what to do about the story she was currently researching on the construction company, Azenco. Then there was her personal life. She did not, for example, want to make things worse for her boyfriend. “I didn’t want to affect his life. He didn’t choose my profession. He didn’t choose the risks he has faced,” she says. She also feared for her relatives. Retribution against family members was all too common; already, government media had on occasion labeled her relatives as Armenian: code for traitor in a country that had recently fought a war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. They had also written about her father, calling him corrupt. “That really hurt,” she says.

Another consideration was her health. “I was afraid that my nerves will not endure it. I actually thought about my health a lot,” she remembers. She acknowledges that there are some areas she will not write about because she is physically afraid. “Like there is a huge need to do a drug trafficking investigation in Azerbaijan,” she says.

And nobody does it. I’m physically not feeling able to do that. First, because the government is involved in this business, so there is no way the government will defend you if you get in trouble. It’s too risky.

On the other hand, there was her pride. Journalists, she says, “dig because we are curious, and we share information because it’s also human. We want to share information, it’s in human nature. When you don’t do it, then you go against your nature. When you don’t do it because you are scared, it’s insulting. It’s humiliating.” It was already nearly 9 pm. Ismayilova had to decide whether to react at all to the blackmail attempt and, if so, what to do.

[27] “Killed Azerbaijani journalist buried in Baku,” RFE/RL, November 24, 2011. See: http://www.rferl.org/articleprintview/24401287.html

[28] Amnesty International, “Document-Azerbaijan: No More Running Scared,” Media Briefing, February 20, 2012. AI indes: EUR 55/001/2012. See: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/EUR55/001/2012/en/2f90536f-c892-441e-add3-a0a1cedc16be/eur550012012en.html