On May 25th, 2016, the world got a little bit safer. That's because at approximately 2:00 p.m. local time, the Azerbaijan Supreme Court in Baku finally gave in to the demands of human rights activists and press freedom advocates around the world and released investigative journalist and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Khadija Ismayilova.
While we celebrate this development, this story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending. At best Khadija's release is a small victory in a far larger battle.
The fact is that Khadija's unjust imprisonment is part of a larger, and deeply concerning, global trend. Governments around the world are increasingly cracking down on the free flow of information, silencing dialogue and dissent, and distorting reality in order to defend the indefensible: tyranny, kleptocracy, murder, religious intolerance, and crackdowns on human rights.
Silencing journalists like Khadija creates a ripple effect that affects almost all levels of society.
I know this because I see it every day. As CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), I am responsible for overseeing and coordinating the work of the BBG's component networks -- the Voice of America, RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks -- that collectively comprise U.S. international media (USIM). We employ hundreds of men and women around the world like Khadija, whose contributions provide free and accurate news and information, and encourage informed discussion in some of the most closed societies on the planet. The men and women who contribute to U.S. international media, and indeed all journalists the world over, play a vital part in calling attention to these insidious strategies.
The need for their noble service has never been greater. Kremlin-controlled media is well-ensconced in the Russian periphery, both Chinese and Cuban state media still have tight grips on information flows in those countries, Iran continues to block information it hasn't sanctioned, and when ISIL moves into a new territory, one of its first objectives is to restrict access to outside media.
And because of this we increasingly see our journalists and many others targeted for doing what these regimes and actors fear most -- they report the facts and speak truth to power.
Khadija spent 537 days behind bars in retaliation for her corruption reporting. And although her sentence was revised, there are conditions on her freedom. Her now-suspended sentence of three and a half years comes with a five-year probation, which means she is not allowed to the leave the country. Her colleagues at RFE/RL remain under investigation and their news bureau in Baku remains shuttered, forced closed since December 2014 by the Azerbaijani authorities.
Retaliatory prison sentences have also been handed to USIM journalists in Vietnam and Turkmenistan. In just the past year our reporters in Azerbaijan, Burundi, Cambodia, Chechnya, China, Crimea, Iraq, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam have all been forced to leave their homes, and in some cases their jobs. In those countries and elsewhere, USIM journalists' family members have been arrested, dismissed from jobs, and threatened in an effort to silence their loved ones.
So, while Khadija's release is a major victory for her and her supporters that we will celebrate for years to come, it is but a small step on the path to press freedom in Azerbaijan and the rest of the world. Press freedom is a fundamental human right that lies at the core of all democratic and free societies, and we all have a shared responsibility to hold governments accountable when they suppress it. The hard fight continues.
The simple fact is that we must treat press freedom as a human right and a universal priority. Indeed, a global movement to end this era of journalist persecution is underway. The BBG and its networks will be a torch bearer in this fight, and we will seek to be a bridge between men and women living in oppressed societies and the rest of the world. And we will continue to highlight the unsung heroes who sacrifice their freedom for ours.
When we lose independent voices, we run the risk of conceding the information space to hostile regimes, extremists, and rogues. It will take all of our effort to ensure this does not occur.