Eurovision Razzmatazz vs. Azerbaijan’s Oppression

As we head towards one more tacky but popular Eurovision final, will a spotlight also be shone onto the serious human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, this year’s host? Or will the Azeri government succeed in burnishing their image and hiding the reality of violence, repression and an increasingly hostile environment for journalists, bloggers, academics, activists and others?

The Azeri government is spending a shitload on Eurovision, an estimated £24 million. The venue is a gray crenellated edifice called the Crystal Hall. It’s a long walk from the city center, and built out on a long pier as well, so there’s no chance of the hoi-polloi mingling with the “stars.” Especially as a ticket for the final costs upward of 160 euros ($200). And the primary goal is that of promoting Azerbaijan as a modern, democratic country with much to offer beyond its oil and gas resources, not least as a tourist destination (think Dubai, only with the stench of oil refining in the air).

Those oil and gas dollars are doubtless the key reason, sadly, why the US and European governments have put very little pressure on Azerbaijan in the recent past to stop its human rights abuses and to tackle the cracked facade of its political system that could never, in any way be labelled democratic.

But as Bahrain and the Formula 1 race showed earlier this month, big events can have a nasty habit of highlighting the truths about a country’s human rights record, rather than covering it up with razzmatazz and showbiz. Perhaps with this in mind, the government in Baku has just released one jailed opposition activist Elnur Majidlii only weeks into a two-year sentence. But the wide-ranging and worsening repression of free speech and freedom to protest in Azerbaijan will not be solved – or hidden – by such gesture politics. Meanwhile, the government has unleashed a huge programme of evictions and demolitions as it beautifies parts of Baku ahead of Eurovision.

As hundreds of journalists fly into Baku to cover the event – expected to attract an audience of 125 million people – they should spare more than a passing thought for their Azeri colleagues in what Freedom House has called “one of the world’s most hostile media environments”. And they should be aware too that foreign journalists have not been immune from attack either.

In November 2011, writer Rafiq Tagi was attacked outside his home and later died. No one has been brought to justice for his murder. And just last month, shortly after winning the Index on Censorship/Guardian Award for journalism, investigative reporter Idrak Abbasov was beaten unconscious by private security guards as he attempted to film a demolition by the state oil company. Police looked on and others were prevented from going to his assistance. Abbasov commented after the attack: “They weren’t just beating me, they were trying to kill me.”

In a climate of impunity,  intimidation and repression serve to try to silence bloggers and journalists online as well. A deadly irony given Baku will host another big international event this autumn, the Internet Governance Forum.

And it’s not just journalists – a whole range of people including musicians, gay rights campaigners, and ordinary people on protests marches, have faced attacks. It is deeply uncomfortable that such a light, pop event as Eurovision takes place in a country living in a climate of such fear and oppression.

Europe’s foremost institution to protect human rights, The Council of Europe should be leading demands for the autocratic government of Azerbaijan to change and stop its repressive clampdown on dissenters and ordinary people who have an opinion that is different that that of the ruling class.

Azerbaijan has done its best too to obstruct Council of Europe investigations of its abuses – repeatedly refusing a visa to the Council’s special rapporteur on political prisoners and it has slithered ever downwards towards Freedom House’s lowest ‘not free’ categorisation.

This year’s Eurovision takes place in a country where opposition voices are silenced, journalists are killed for doing their work and citizens are punished for making their grievances known. Many fear that after the last pop fans have packed their bags, international attention will move on.

One hopes that the final could be a moment when a wave of pressure for change builds up. And not a moment when the veils are drawn again over such egregious abuses.

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