22 June 2011

IRFS staffer, freelance journalist attacked


Celia Davies, third from left, among other IFEX members at the IFEX conference in Beirut this month
Celia Davies, third from left, among other IFEX members at the IFEX conference in Beirut this month
Earlier this month, many IFEX members met Celia Davies, a British staffer at the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) in Azerbaijan, for the first time at the IFEX conference in Beirut. It hit that much closer to home when last week, Davies and U.S. freelance journalist Amanda Erickson were badly beaten while on their way home - likely in connection with their human rights work, says IRFS.

Davies and Erickson both ran training programmes for local journalists and civil society activists, said IRFS. Erickson has also worked with the "Washington Post" and "The New York Times".

Four men followed and attacked Erickson and Davies at around midnight on 15 June outside their apartment building in Baku. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Davies's arm was broken, and Erickson suffered multiple bruises, resulting in both of them being hospitalised.

With no valuables taken off the women, the motive behind the attack remained unclear.

"I believe that this is no regular criminal act. There are several possible motives, including that this is intended to intimidate foreign journalists and human rights defenders." said IRFS director Emin Huseynov.

Immediately after the incident, "Yeni Azerbaijan", the official newspaper of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), published a "smear" article against IRFS and Huseynov.

According to Huseynov, Azerbaijan's government in the past six months has made the visa regime for foreigners to enter Azerbaijan extremely difficult and has even detained and deported journalists in Azerbaijan who had valid visas.

Plus, officials have also closed down foreign NGOs, including the National Democratic Institute and Human Rights House, he said.

"If Azerbaijan's government is not behind this incident and is interested in solving this crime they must act quickly to find the perpetrators of this attack. In addition, they must create a safe working environment for foreign human rights defenders and journalists," said Huseynov.

According to Freedom House, attacks on journalists are not uncommon in Azerbaijan and most assailants are never brought to justice, resulting in high levels of self-censorship and a climate of fear.

Coincidentally, the assault took place during the visit to Azerbaijan of Thomas Melia, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Labor, said CPJ. According to Huseynov, Melia was briefed about the attack and the U.S. Embassy in Baku is monitoring developments in the case.

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