A First Lady and a Jailed Journalist


This week, the United Nations recognized the courage of the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who has been arbitrarily imprisoned in Azerbaijan since December 2014.

Elmira Ismayilova, the journalist’s mother, on Tuesday accepted a $25,000 award honoring her daughter at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, on World Press Freedom Day, and read a statement her daughter had written from jail.

“As you gather here tonight, I ask you not to laud my work or my courage, but to dedicate yourself to the work each one of you can do on behalf of press freedom and justice,” Ms. Ismayilova wrote.

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Elmira Ismayilova, mother of imprisoned journalist Khadija Ismayilova, at the World Press Freedom Conference in Finland on Tuesday.

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Jussi Nukari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The agency that honored Ms. Ismayilova, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, can heed her call by taking a symbolic step. In 2004 it named Mehriban Aliyeva, the first lady of Azerbaijan, as a Unesco good-will ambassador, adding her to a roster described as “an outstanding group of celebrity advocates who spread the ideals of Unesco through their name and fame.” In Ms. Aliyeva’s case, the title has done more to bring notoriety to Unesco than to advance its goals, which include promoting freedom of information. It should rescind the title now.

Ms. Ismayilova was convicted in an unfair trial and sentenced to more than seven years in prison after uncovering information about the secretive financial holdings of President Ilham Aliyev and his family. Mr. Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-rich nation since 2003, when he replaced his father, has become increasingly authoritarian in recent years. Ms. Aliyeva has been a member of Parliament since 2005. The family has gone to great lengths to conceal the wealth it has accumulated by running the country like a cartel, and the government has cracked down on journalists, bloggers and activists who have raised questions.

Details about the holdings of the first family, which were revealed in the Panama Papers leak, showed how accurate Ms. Ismayilova’s reporting about the family’s shady financial transactions was.

Before imprisoning Ms. Ismayilova, the Azerbaijan government harassed and intimidated her. But the reporter, who worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, refused to back down and continues to document and expose government abuse from jail.

The human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is seeking Ms. Ismayilova’s release before the European Court of Human Rights. While that effort proceeds, international leaders should press Azerbaijan to release Ms. Ismayilova and other political prisoners.

The spokesman for Unesco, George Papagiannis, said in an email that the organization last month began reviewing its roster of good-will ambassadors to determine which ones should continue serving in the ceremonial role. At the award ceremony for Ms. Ismayilova, Unesco representatives, inexplicably, did not call for her immediate release. “All that I can say at this moment is that we are in contact with the government of Azerbaijan,” Mr. Papagiannis said.

It is not too late for Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, who is a candidate for the United Nations’ top job, to do so.

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