According to a recent series of investigative reports, oil-rich Azerbaijan — wedged between Russia and Iran — is ruled by a virtual kleptocracy. It is illegal for Azerbaijan government officials to own businesses, but the law does not apply to their families. So while President Ilham Aliyev’s control of the nation’s oil industry remains cloaked in layers of deceptive legality, the facts about his two daughters’ hefty stake in the mining, financial services, construction, and other industries have become public knowledge.
These facts were unearthed by a brave journalist named Khadija Ismayilova. On Dec. 5, Ismayilova was jailed; on Dec. 26, the Baku office of her employer, the US-funded Azeri language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was raided and ransacked.
For months, the ruling party has been accusing Ismayilova of spying for the CIA. But she has not been formally charged with espionage, and weeks of interrogations and searches by the legal authorities have not produced a shred of evidence to justify such a charge. Yet sadly, America has a history of providing a pretext to authoritarians and other adversaries to discredit independent journalists in this manner. This needs to end.
When RFE/RL was originally established in 1949, its purpose was to break the information monopoly of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union — and its funding came covertly from the CIA. In 1967 this covert funding was exposed (by investigative journalists), and in 1971 it was terminated. In 1972, Congress voted to fund RFE/RL openly as an independent media company under the supervision of the Board for International Broadcasting, a new entity created to serve as a firewall between RFE/RL and the government.
Today, there is a tendency in the private-sector media to characterize RFE/RL as a “government mouthpiece.” This is ironic, because the RFE/RL leadership is scrupulous about keeping the government at arm’s length.
But this raises a larger question. Does the CIA recruit journalists? The question has a hostile ring, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asked. On the contrary, the tension between America’s security concerns and its sacrosanct free press tradition is far from resolved.
The practice of recruiting journalists, and of placing intelligence agents under cover as reporters, was apparently banned in 1977. But appearances can be deceptive. Two decades later, in 1996, President Clinton’s CIA director, John Deutch, revealed that the CIA had retained the right to use journalists as spies and to have spies pose as journalists.
Since then, the issue has not gone away, in part because the CIA refuses to fully swear off these practices. And Americans continue to acknowledge the possibility, if only in jest. For example, the controversial film “The Interview’’ depicts a TV talk show host and his producer being recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. “The Interview’’ has some funny bits, but this plot is not one of them.
There are two reasons why the CIA should finally pledge to a ban on recruiting journalists and using journalism as a cover for its agents.
First, such practices make honest journalism more dangerous. Ask Terry Anderson, the Associated Press reporter who in 1985 was taken captive by Hezbollah, which accused him of being a CIA agent. After being released in 1991, Anderson went became an eloquent voice arguing against blurring the distinction between newsgathering and espionage.
This is not to suggest that if the CIA’s policy were less murky and problematic, the Taliban would not have murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, or the Azerbaijan ruling party would not be trying to discredit Khadija Ismayilova. But when it comes to managing risk, a definite ban on the recruitment of journalists would constitute a positive step. Not only that, but the lack of such a ban erodes the trust of America’s allies and provides fuel to its adversaries.
Second, the primary justification for freedom of speech as set forth in the Constitution is to allow a free and competitive press to hold power accountable. It is simply not possible to hold this principle dear while getting into bed with an intelligence service.
The CIA needs to step up. The government of Azerbaijan needs to release Ismayilova and end its harassment of independent journalists. And the defenders of free speech need to bring principled pressure on both Langley and Baku.
Martha Bayles teaches humanities at Boston College and is author of “Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.” Jeffrey Gedmin is chairman of Global Politics and Security at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and served as president/CEO of RFR/RL from 2007 to 2011.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story had a midleading headline.