On 1 December 2014, a friend tagged me in a Facebook post. When I clicked to see what it was about, I froze in horror. It was a post by Interaz – International Azerbaijan Television, a major national television channel broadcasting from Russia, according to the description on its Facebook page. The post Interaz shared on their Facebook page was about me and another Azerbaijani female journalist, Salatin Asgarova. Our pictures were placed next to each other. The captions read “hero” under her picture, “traitor” under mine. There were short texts accompanying the photos. In her case, the text described Asgarova, an Azerbaijani journalist killed by the Armenian army while covering the Karabakh war in 1991, as a hero. The text describing me was less positive. It contained false information about my work in the field of conflict-sensitive journalism and conflict transformation. The text claimed I was denying the conflict, supporting the perpetrators of the war while being critical of the authorities in Azerbaijan, and so on.
This was just one of the many defamatory posts and articles I have seen written, screened or posted about me in the course of the last four years. And it all began in March of 2014 when a small low-profile news website in Azerbaijan published an interview with me. It was titled “An Azerbaijani journalist, working for an Armenian newspaper”. Weeks before the interview went online, the author had reached out to me. She asked if she could interview me for her series on successful Azerbaijani women, working and living abroad. When I received the questions, having agreed to the interview, I realized this was not about my professional career, but about my work, at the time, with a small bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper, Agos.
When I joined Agos in 2013 as a columnist, I covered mostly the news from Azerbaijan and occasionally penned opinion pieces about the region at large. For practitioners in the field of conflict transformation and especially those who work on information wars and media propaganda, such collaboration was an example of breaking of stereotypes. But for some circles in Azerbaijan, this was a perfect excuse to come after me. And come they did.
The interview triggered a wave of online misogyny, harassment, death threats and defamation campaigns against me, on the grounds that I was a traitor who had sold out her country by working for an “enemy” newspaper. “A dirty microbe fallen off an Armenian whore”, commented one troll on Facebook, expressing his utter disgust for me. “Arzu – slut – ullayeva”, wrote another, mangling my last name to express his hostility. “Gey daughter of geybullayeva, she is brushing her teeth with sperm, look how white they are. She is probably getting gangbanged often,” wrote yet another man. “Even if she is a traitor, she looks like a bomb. I would pay 50 manats to have an hour with her,” wrote a certain Fuad. “This illiterate Armenian renegade should be hanged,” wrote a woman by the name of Terane.
There were people who were ready to kill me and spend the next 15 years in jail. There were those who threatened to rape me, to hang me by my feet. Some messages and comments were so descriptive that I was amazed by the wild imagination of Azerbaijani men and often women. Now I am sufficiently recovered to find it almost funny, but it wasn’t the case at the time. I felt powerless, weak, discredited. The last was a major blow because as a journalist, it takes so much time, effort and investment to establish your credibility. And yet what had taken years of building took a mere few months to destroy.
I keep a collection of these comments and death threats, as well as links to articles, news programmes and so on that were published about me at the time and over the years. They have been very useful in understanding how the hate mechanism works in Azerbaijan and how trolls can be deployed against government critics. Probably I also have enough material for anyone who wants to study a selection of Azerbaijani men and see what constitutes manhood in part of our culture.
One day, when I have time, I would be interested in exploring some of these attitudes among Azerbaijani men. A few months ago, I reached out to one of my trolls and asked him what gave him the right to call my mother a whore and me a microbe. He wrote back. “Hello. If you could clarify what you are talking about and in what context I made that comment, I could answer your question.” Note there was not a hint of apology, even four years later. I responded that regardless of the context, didn’t he think it was unacceptable to write something like that about someone he’d never met? He replied: “You are asking me whether I think it is ok to insult someone I don’t know. We don’t personally know Armenians targeting us from other side. Yet we’re ready to cut off their heads for the political ideas they have. So I’m not sure what it is you don’t understand. You should prepare for everything if the ideas you have are a threat to a nation of ten million and a violation of their rights, regardless of your nationality and identity.”
When I reached out to the author of the slur “Arzu – slut- ullayeva”, he said he did not remember making that comment but if indeed he had, he asked my forgiveness. The third man never got back to me but I did have an interesting exchange with the one called Fuad. He refused to apologize and instead demanded that I share with him the original picture under which he had left the comment. “I don’t leave a comment without a reason. This is why the picture is very important. If I have written ‘traitor’, then the picture must smell of an Armenian. If Azerbaijani see a picture of an Armenian piece of trash, then he/she deserves the worst slurs no matter what gender.”
What worries me most about online harassment and hate slurs is that women often face the worst of it, whether they are journalists or not. And if you are unfamiliar with this kind of behaviour, you can easily feel lost, alone and afraid for your safety and the well-being of your loved ones.
One of the most important lessons I have learned on this journey is not to keep quiet but to speak up when faced with harassment. In the last few years, I have opened up about my experiences, documented my harassers and exposed them. Did it make me feel safer? Not really, but at least I know I am not alone and I have a voice, as a journalist, as a woman, but above all, as a human being, entitled to dignity. I was never a traitor, and I will never be one.