After the European Games: Play the Game 2015 invites imprisoned Azeri journalist

Photo: Artwork by Kianoush Ramezani/PEN America/Flickr

Khadija Ismayilova is imprisoned in Azerbaijan for her reporting. Artwork by Kianoush Ramezani/ PEN America / Flickr


By Stine Alvad
Reporting about powerful people can be a dangerous line of work. In Azerbaijan, it may cost you your freedom. Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova is currently in jail for exposing corrupt practices in the Azeri elite. Play the Game has invited her to speak at the conference in October.

For the past six months, journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been in an Azeri prison. It is widely believed she was put there because of her reporting which has exposed corruption at the highest level of the Azeri government. At the center of her reporting is Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, and his family, who are allegedly involved in corrupt affairs such as acquiring valuable real estate through holding and off shore companies.

Although in prison, the Azeri journalist keeps fighting to tell her story and through a cooperation with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a series of articles has been published uncovering the powerful Aliyev family and their financial transactions.

The latest story to emerge reveals that two of Aliyev’s daughters have benefitted largely from the European Games, which just ended in Baku. According to the OCCRP article, Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva either own or can easily be connected to the management of at least ten five star hotels in and around Baku.

According to the article, these hotels have been fully booked during the closing of the European Games, and the article assesses that if fully booked throughout the Games’ period, the hotel owners could have made more than ten million dollars.

All hotel bills and other costs for the 6,000 athletes and their entourage were covered by the Azeri tax-payers via their government controlled by the Aliyev family.

The articles are published through a website set up by the OCCRP, campaigning for the release of Ismayilova. Many of the articles which appear on the website use Ismayilova’s byline but are in fact written by Azeri journalists afraid to use their own names because of the Azeri government’s strong stance on journalism critical of the government.

Read more about Ismayilova’s reporting about the Aliyevs and the FreeKhadija campaign set up by the OCCRP.

Reports about repression and human rights violations in the first host country of the Eurpean Games have been vast in the run up to and during the Games and new reports suggest that there could be more to come:

"Just two days after the European Games closed in Azerbaijan, four journalists say they were barred from leaving the country and told they were placed on a government “blacklist”, writes the OCCRP. The four journalists worked for independent online media platform Meydan TV and founder Emin Milli fears that “the government has now chosen Meydan TV to be the first target of a new wave of repressions", he says to the OCCRP.

"Things have never been worse"
In a letter released on 11 June, on the occasion of the opening of the  European Games, Islayilova deplores the lack of political freedom in her native country.

“Things have never been worse. As those at the top continue to profit from corruption, ordinary people are struggling to work, struggling to live, struggling for freedom. And we must struggle with them, for them,” Ismayilova wrote in the letter   published by the New York Times.

“Today, I say to the international community: Do not let the government of Azerbaijan distract your attention from its record of corruption and abuse. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced. Keep fighting for right, and for good. Be loud, and be public. The people of Azerbaijan need to know that their rights are supported.”

The state of journalism in sport, in particular investigative journalism into the connections between sport, crime and political power is one of the main themes at Play the Game 2015. Therefore, Play the Game has issued an official invitation for Khadija Ismayilova to come to Play the Game 2015, well aware that she will most likely not be able to be present. Even if she is not allowed to speak, the OCCRP will be represented by reporter David Bloss.

Other investigative journalists and whistleblowers at Play the Game 2015
Some of the most significant and influential investigative journalists in sport will be at Play the Game 2015 and like at the conference in 2013, some of them will also be in workshops sharing some of their working methods and describing the dedication needed to pursue unwelcome stories about powerful people.  

Among the confirmed speakers at the conference, taking place in Aarhus, Denmark 25-29 October, are investigative journalists Andrew Jennings, Hajo Seppelt, Laura Robinson, Declan Hill and Jens Weinreich.

Participants at the conference can also meet the Russian Stepanova couple who played a large part in exposing systematic doping practices in Russian athletics, drawing lines all the way to the top of athletics’ world body.


Do you have your own story to tell? You can join the line of speakers at Play the Game 2015 by sending in your story. The abstract submission is still open and Play the Game encourages academics, journalists, sports officials and other stakeholders to share their story and join the debates at Play the Game 2015.

Find more information about the conference here:

  • Safarov Taleh, 05.07.2015 11:51:
    Why doesn't the article tell the whole story of why Ms. Ismayilova is arrested and what was she found guilty for? One-side interpretation is unacceptable.
  • gurban gurbanov, 02.07.2015 09:56:
    Where is the evidence?Khadidja broke the law,that is why the court found her guilty. And people know that she is spy of the West(another violation of the law by the way)

* required field

What is three plus seven?

Guidelines for posting
Play the Game promotes an open debate on sport and sports politics and we strongly encourage everyone to participate in the discussions on But please follow these simple guidelines when you write a post:

  1. Please be respectful - even if you disagree strongly with certain viewpoints. Slanderous or profane remarks will not be posted.
  2. Please keep to the subject. Spam or solicitations of any kind will not be posted.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.