Human Rights Day: Media in Exile — Fighting back against authoritarian regimes

10th December 2014 in Alumni, News and Events, Women at Churchill

World Human Rights day poster showing coloured handsreaching up on a black background

Today is International Human Rights Day and the end of the UN's 16 day Orange your Neighbourhood campaign to raise awareness of gender-based violence.

In the last piece in our Orange your Neighbourhood series, alumna Celia Davies — Fundraising & Strategy Manager at Azerbaijan’s only surviving independent reporting network, discusses human rights issues in authoritarian regimes.

The first time I celebrated Human Rights Day was in Baku, Azerbaijan — I’d moved there just a few months earlier. For two years I worked for a local human rights NGO, which a few months ago was shut down by the government in a sudden and massive crackdown on civil society.

When I left in autumn 2012, we were an organisation of thirty people, with a team of journalists producing content for an online TV channel, training local journalists, and running international human rights campaigns. Now there are two people left: one lawyer and one translator, twenty-four and twenty-three years old respectively. They work at home, because the office has been sealed off. They use their own computers, because all the equipment was seized in a police raid back in August. They do everything for free, because the organisation’s bank account has been frozen.

Today, four years on, the people with whom I celebrated fall into one of three categories:

  • in jail
  • in exile
  • silenced through government censorship

Rasul Jafarov, a former colleague charged with ‘abuse of power’ in his capacity as director of a human rights NGO, has just spent his thirtieth birthday behind bars. Internationally renowned investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova — who has played a major role in exposing official corruption — was arrested just last week following a long campaign of government harassment, from smear campaigns, to travel bans, to accusations of treason.

Given the declared legal and political commitments of the UK and other European states to human rights, you might at this stage expect official protests and ambassadorial summons. But one of the main things I have learned over the last five years working in this field is that human rights issues invariably take a back seat to other national interests, in this case energy security. Azerbaijan’s vast oil and gas reserves represent a crucial opportunity for European countries to reduce reliance on Russian energy. As a consequence, there is shamefully little pressure from the West on the kleptomaniac Aliyev family, which has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993.

Protesters in Azerbaijan after the 2013 election. Source:

Protesters in Azerbaijan after the 2013 election. Source:

With European governments effectively silent in the face of these widespread violations of the European Convention of Human Rights — which Azerbaijan has signed — it is clear that we need new and innovative ways of holding corrupt regimes to account. I am hoping that through Meydan TV, we might have found that way. For the past year, I have been working with a group of exiled Azerbaijani dissidents and writers to develop a new strategy to hold corrupt and repressive governments to account, and to fight for freedom of expression in the post-Soviet space.

I met Meydan TV’s founder, Emin Milli, back in 2010, when he was released from jail. He’d spent 16 months behind bars for his part in creating a YouTube video that satirised the government. Out of jail, no one would hire him, and he soon realised that traditional international advocacy mechanisms were losing traction to European energy interests, while the beleaguered independent media was shrinking by the day. Emin’s vision was a decentralised, dispersed and pan-regional network of independent journalists who would submit content to a multi-media platform located outside Azerbaijan. We have no in-country institutional presence, but rather a network of freelance journalists and photographers working across Azerbaijan and over the border in Georgia. Political prisoners smuggle material out jail for publication on our site; ordinary citizens submit stories; when we can find the money we commission bigger-scale investigations into official corruption. Our mission is to create a sustainable media platform in a region where fundamental freedoms are being traded on the international energy market.

A few days ago the Head of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration accused us of ‘violently attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of Azerbaijan’, so I guess we must be doing something right.

— Celia Davies

Celia Davies is Fundraising & Strategy Manager at Meydan TV, Azerbaijan’s only surviving independent reporting network. If you are interested in learning more about Meydan TV or supporting its work, please contact

Read more from this series

Human Rights Day — December 10th

On 10 December every year, Human Rights Day commemorates the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming its principles as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

This year’s slogan is Human Rights 365, which encompasses the idea that every day is Human Rights Day. It celebrates the fundamental proposition in the Universal Declaration that each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights, that human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.

Find out more