CPJ International Press Freedom Award 2009
November 22, 2011
Ladies and gentlemen,
I've come back from a place where times stands still. Neither night falls there nor does day come. Bare walls, cold, dampness, and darkness rule. In that place, it is easy to forget that there is a colorful world out there, where people walk free and some of them are even happy.
In that place, the only thing that can help you overcome your fears is shame. Not shame before a mighty power, which has the capacity to physically destroy you only because you have exercised your right to freedom of expression. But shame that comes with the realization that a journalist who gives in to intimidation, who becomes obedient, has already lost the fight for that right. And only press freedom can beget truth.
Six years ago, my colleague and close friend Elmar Huseynov was murdered. He was a brave journalist and a sharp critic of the administration.
Paying my last tribute to Elmar, I made an oath that I would solve his killing. Some time passed and I succeeded in tracking down the criminals who committed this atrocity for the purpose of silencing him. Because I found the criminals, I was immediately sent to prison.
The two newspapers I edited--which were the most popular in Azerbaijan at the time--were shuttered by a government that has no tolerance of criticism and alternative views. About 100 journalists who were on my staff or collaborated with my newspapers were subjected to all kinds of harassment--threats, beatings, persecution.
As for me, I was sentenced to a total of 16 years of imprisonment on a variety of fabricated charges--from defamation, to tax evasion, to terrorism. All of my property--including editorial equipment and even my personal computer--was confiscated. I experienced the retaliation of a relentless, repressive state at its full capacity.
In my hour of need, when I felt isolated and deserted, when I had almost lost hope that I would ever be let out of jail alive, the Committee to Protect Journalists did its utmost to save me.
I spent more than four years in detention, of which two years in solitary confinement. It was my father only who had access to me. Every week he would bring me news about your advocacy efforts, about your statements and actions in my support. These actions seemed to keep his spirits up, and kindle his and my hopes. Yes, it was your Committee that played a crucial role in my release.
Two years ago, dejected, I was sitting in my damp, dimly lit solitary cell, giving myself to solemn thoughts about the ups and downs of fortune. Every day felt like it could be my last. Suddenly, I learnt that your Committee had granted me this high prize. I felt happy, for I realized that I had escaped oblivion.
Today I'm free thanks to you and the efforts of the international community. I am trying to be conscious of what has happened, and of my responsibility to this high prize. The state's actions against me failed to shut me up and today I am determined to restart my newspapers. My readers and the people of Azerbaijan deserve to have them back.
Once again I'd like to thank you for this high honor!