Emin Milli, co-founder of Azerbaijani independent media outlet Meydan TV. Photo: VoA
Voice of America’s Eka Maghaldadze spoke with Emin Milli, co-founder of Berlin-based Azerbaijani independent media outlet Meydan TV, about the challenges that Azerbaijani media organizations and journalists face in the country and abroad.
Tell us about your way from Azerbaijan to Berlin, from law school to starting a new media organization? What forced you to come up with the idea of Meydan TV?
I was studying international law and working for many international organizations and then went to activism and was jailed in 2009. After I was released from jail, I went abroad and decided that there is a need for independent media in Azerbaijan. People do not have enough information. We as a society do not have enough reliable sources of information and there is a need for positive democratic transformation to happen. Many “ingredients” are needed, but independent media as an institution is one of them. So, together with some of my friends I decided that we needed to launch Meydan TV. We started it from abroad, because unfortunately the situation in Azerbaijan is such that you cannot have an office or a bank account and you cannot openly function as a media outlet. That’s why we started this in Berlin back in 2013.
None of you had any background in journalism or media management, was not it hard or unusual to start a media outlet without any professional knowledge?
Neither me, nor other members of our team that founded Meydan TV, had any journalism education or media background, but what was making us different was the fact that we were all very popular bloggers in Azerbaijan. We were quite known, at least online, among many people, especially young people in Azerbaijan. At the very beginning, Meydan.tv was also more like a blog, but we realized very fast that if we want to succeed, if we want to be a reliable source of information, Meydan TV should become a professional media outlet, that would follow all the professional standards that any independent respected media would follow. So we started hiring professional journalists and we made sure that we have standards and principles that everyone who works for Meydan TV follows.
Some investigative reporters and editors say that in the hostile environment or outside of it, while moral support is much appreciated, journalists increasingly need financial support - substantial and ongoing support. You started a media organization abroad and without any major supporter. What are your main sources of financing, who are now your main supporters?
It was very difficult, we started with crowdsourcing, we started with around 40 000 Euros, that is what we crowdfunded. People were sending us money or we were traveling around Europe, gathering people who came from Azerbaijan and lived in Europe. We were asking them to donate money to Meydan TV. That was our first capital to start the organization. Then we continued with applying to various international foundations that support independent media. And now, after 4 years, I can say that we have been doubling our audience every year and today we have 10 % of the entire population of Azerbaijan as our audience weekly. Regarding our content, last year Washington Post wrote an article praising what we do, how we do it, the way how we handled the coverage of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April last year. So here we are.
Do you still get donations from private individuals?
We do get support from people and it is not just about money, we see it in many different ways. For example I am here for three weeks and there is a person who gave me his apartment to stay, it would otherwise be very expensive for me to stay here in D.C.
So when we were starting and we were traveling around Europe to organize events where people would donate, we had a friend who was driving us around Europe so we did not spend money on that. We stayed at places of people who are watching Meydan TV, who are supporting us. So the support that is coming from people is very diverse and different.
Who is your audience? People in Azerbaijan or international society who are interested in human rights conditions in the country and whom you are telling the stories about Azerbaijan?
80-90% of our audience is in Azerbaijan. Ten-twenty percent would be the Azerbaijanis who would be watching us outside of Azerbaijan, who are living in Europe, in the U.S., in Russia, in Iran, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, we have not enough resources to have a complete Russian or English version, so if you go now to our Russian or English version, you will have no idea about what is happening on our Azerbaijani version, because all our resources of course, first of all, are directed to providing information to the people in Azerbaijan.
Who are your team members? Did you find people who already lived or studied in Europe or did journalists from Azerbaijan join you as well?
The co-founder of Meyden TV was also Hebib Muntezir, who is now our social media manager, and I think that we owe him a lot for Meydan TV achieving such a success in last years. He was also a blogger, but as I told you, we realized that we needed to have professional journalists, who would be our editors. We have another journalist Orkhan Mammadov, who was a law student in Rome, but he had journalism experience working with Turkish newspaper before that. He was voluntarily helping us over the year, then he came to Berlin and continued doing that for several months, he was so good that we decided to hire him. We have another case - Shirin Abbasov, who was working for us as a journalist in Azerbaijan. He was detained, tortured for thirty days. Then he managed to escape Azerbaijan, come to Georgia, but unfortunately, in Georgia it was not also very safe for him, so he left Georgia, came to Berlin, and now he is working with our team there.
We also have a very wide network of citizen journalists, we ask people to send us materials, we use our wide network to fact-check, and we also have journalists who are contributing with their reports or articles. So in Azerbaijan there is a very wide network of people who are helping us to make sure that we have enough content coming from Azerbaijan. But people who have helped us, who have been contributing to us, they have been getting a lot of harassment from the authorities in Baku.
Government has started a criminal case against Meydan TV, and as you often say your journalists and contributors, collaborators are facing daily harassment, surveillance and threats. We all speak a lot about press freedom and jailed journalists all around the world. How it really feels like to live with a permanent threat?
I do not think about this. I take these threats seriously, take some measures avoiding certain situations where anything like this can happen, or being careful about meeting certain people. But I do not psychologically engage myself with this question, it is just one of ten points of a routine, planning, editorial decisions or fundraising or some other questions that we need to solve. So I am trying emotionally not to engage with this question, because unfortunately this is exactly what people who behave like gangsters, even if they occupy the highest positions in Azerbaijan, do, because that is what they want. They do not want to attack you physically or kill you, they want to get you down psychologically and others to see how difficult it is.
They have tortured our journalists, jailed our relatives, blocked our website, they have done so many things every year, every month, every week. But ever since my response, and the response of our team, was very simple: we said that we respond to all of this repressions with one simple statement: we will continue doing our job, we will improve the quality of our job, we will increase the number of people who read and watch us.
We have delivered on our promise every year despite all of their attempts. Meydan TV has doubled views, and in some years even more than doubled. So the government has not achieved what they wanted and we have achieved every year what we wanted. And today we reach ten percent of the population weekly, and I believe that the government may continue all the attacks and threats, but I believe there will be a day when fifty, sixty, eighty percent of people watch Meydan TV - not because Meydan TV is so great, but because unfortunately every small island of information is disappearing in Azerbaijan. The recent case of the arrest and then release of the director of Turan News Agency, the only independent media outlet in Azerbaijan, and the suspension of its operations proves again the fact that the islands of freedom are disappearing, but fortunately we have managed to build up Meydan TV in a way that these attacks will not get us down. We are increasing the network of people who participate. We have managed to create a community of people who actually feel like journalists, who want us to tell them where to go, what to film, they film themselves, they send materials to us, we have opportunities to fact-check what they film, and we have built the infrastructure that is there to grow. So this audience will, of course, grow. That will be our only response to what the government is doing with us.
Your cousin, brother-in-law were also imprisoned as well as some other relatives of your journalists or contributors. Sometimes it is not only about journalists, but our family members as well, for whom it has never been a professional choice. How do you deal with that responsibility when your relatives pay the price of your choice?
Yes, some of my relatives have been jailed and two years ago 23 of my relatives in Azerbaijan disowned me in an open letter they signed and sent to President Ilham Aliyev. They are basically denouncing me and saying that I am the enemy of the state and they support fully the policies of President Aliyev. I do not judge them, I think they are trying to make sure that they and their families are safe and secure. But I personally, and many people of our team, are not planning to give up journalism and developing independent media for Azerbaijan just because our relatives are or could be taken hostages. Because it is kind of a terrorist activity, and we are not planning to hold negotiations with terrorists who terrorize us.
But some people in Azerbaijan truly see your work as a betrayal. What do you tell them?
Well, I have not come across any person in Azerbaijan who sincerely and seriously would tell us that they think we are betraying our country, our nation, or even our state. We are in contact with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people, we are receiving letters every day, there are hundreds, thousands of comments on Meydan TV, and if someone, even a troll dares to say anything like this, it is not even us, it is people who are dealing with them so we have not seen it anytime, anywhere - unless you read these pro-government newspapers or television that are living in a surreal world — the world that does not exist.
My cousin had been arrested before that and the only condition of the release was for them to sign that paper. But people are very unhappy about what is going on in the country: recently the income of people has fallen, the inflation took place, oil price went down, and so things are not even what they were three or four years ago. So I am not taking seriously any kind of statements like this and we are not taking them seriously.
Do you think you have an impact/influence in Azerbaijan?
I do not think, I know - of course we have it. If we look at BBC Future News Report, BBC is saying that they do not just want to produce news for the sake of producing news, they want to have an impact of positive change on lives of people on national, community and individual levels. I think on the national and community levels, Meydan TV does not have yet any tangible results in terms of its impact but the influence we are having is accumulating. But on the individual level there are hundreds of cases when Meydan TV reported problems of people and those problems have been solved by local or national government, or by fellow citizens. There were thousands of cases when people were calling us and sending requests to go and cover their problems, send our reporters or our citizen journalists to report about them. Not always, of course, but sometimes our coverage can solve their problems.
What are the changes you want to see as a proof of the success of your work?
We are independent media, we are not setting any political goals. We are not here for regime change or anything like that. We are not activists, we are a group of journalists and our mission is to provide people in Azerbaijan with reliable sources of information.
It is up to the people in Azerbaijan what they want to change, how they want to change it. All we want to do is to make sure that they have access to independent information, that they have a platform for different voices, for debates, for information that is free from any kind of propaganda.”
Your journalist Afgan Mukhtarli disappeared from Georgia and found himself in jail in Baku. You have also mentioned that some of your journalists, as well as Azerbaijani activists, were not feeling safe in Georgia for the last period. Did Mukhtarli case change your attitude towards Georgia and press freedom in the country and what concerns did it bring to you?
Georgia is a country that I love, and many people in Azerbaijan love Georgia. We love to go to Georgia, we love Georgian culture. Even my mother who was Azeri was born in Tbilisi. That is why it is even more painful for us to see how the Georgian government, or some parts of the Georgian government, basically bowed to a dictatorship, a criminal regime, and enabled kidnapping of one of our journalists from Georgia to Azerbaijan.
Afgan Mukhtarli conducted several investigations about Aliyev’s businesses in Georgia, but he also was playing a very important role not just as a journalist - he was also helping a lot of Azeri journalists and activists who were in Georgia, helping sometimes on a very human level, hosting them at home when necessary, accompanying them.
And when he was delivered to Baku, he said in court that it were Georgian men in official government uniforms who had beaten him, put him in the car and brought him to the border.
So for us there is no question about cooperation between Georgian and Azerbaijani security services. Even before that incident we were receiving many signals from the Georgian government that we are unwanted in Georgia, that it would be smart for us to leave Georgia.
What kind of signals?
We have one of our editors - Gunel Movlud - she left Georgia for Norway because she did not feel secure there. Many activists and journalists have been followed. Their requests to the Georgian police to find out who is following them and why they are followed did not bring any results.
So when this act happened, it was shocking for me. I was expecting some kind of aggression or crime - you can always find and hire someone who commits the crime everywhere in the world, in any country - but such an open show of power, that they can influence the Georgian government, they can make the Georgian government deliver an Azerbaijani journalist illegally, in the middle of the day… He lived behind the building of the Georgian Parliament, it happened not somewhere in the desert, it was in the center of Tbilisi. The fact that it happened was not just horrible for us, but I think also for a lot of people in Georgia. It should also be a very humiliating moment, and also very dangerous moment, a call to wake up, because if rule of law does not work even for a foreigner, it means that tomorrow it can happen with any citizen in the country as well.
I think that the reputation of Georgia was damaged a lot. I was invited by the Atlantic Council to participate in a big event in October in Georgia about Eurasia, and I told the organizers that I cannot travel to Georgia. There are no guarantees that the Georgian government will not deliver me to Azerbaijan as well, and then pretend that they have nothing to do with this.
Also, the wife of Afgan Mukhtarli even today feels very unsafe and says she is still followed. So do other activists. So this is still happening. And the fact that the Georgian authorities were not able to provide even recordings of video cameras filming what was happening in the streets of Tbilisi is outrageous. Georgian authorities could not even provide us with the evidence. It was deleted, and it showed the power of people who were involved in this crime, and I think that without participation of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other national security agencies, and without the knowledge of at least the Prime Minister, nothing like this could happen in Georgia.
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