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(Berlin) – The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) should speak out about Azerbaijan’s appalling record on freedom of expression in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest, Human Rights Watch said in a video report released today. Eurovision will take place in Baku from May 22 to May 26, 2012. The EBU, an association of public broadcasters, is responsible for overseeing the Eurovision Song Contest each year.

On May 2, on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the EBU held a workshop in Geneva on media freedom in Azerbaijan. However, the EBU failed to use this opportunity to call the Azerbaijani government to task and to speak out about Azerbaijan’s abysmal record on freedom of expression.

“The EBU depends on freedom of speech for its very existence,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.“Its failure yesterday to take a principled, clear, and vocal stand on Azerbaijan’s deteriorating media freedoms raises questions about its commitment to those principles.”

The Human Rights Watch video profiles journalists, singers, and free-expression advocates who voice their alarm at the Azerbaijan government’s crackdown on free expression, and the EBU’s reluctance to speak out publicly against it.

Human Rights Watch had planned to show the video at the May 2 workshop, but the EBU declined to show the video at the last minute, citing technical reasons. The EBU also declined to show video materials that the Azerbaijani government sought to publicize at the event.

The Human Rights Watch video details how independent and opposition journalists in Azerbaijan are frequently subject to harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks. Police fail to investigate these attacks effectively or to bring the perpetrators to justice.

On April 18, just a month before thousands of European journalists are expected to arrive in Baku to cover Eurovision and other aspects of contemporary Azerbaijan, security officials from Azerbaijan’s state oil company viciously beat Idrak Abbasov, a well-known Azerbaijani journalist who was filming forced evictions and house demolitions by the oil company. The officials kicked and beat him unconscious, leaving him with a concussion and multiple bruises.

In March, there was a vicious blackmail campaign against a Radio Liberty journalist, Khadija Ismailova. A secretly-recorded video of a personal nature was posted on the Internet on March 14, a week after she refused to be blackmailed into stopping her critical journalism. The day before the video was posted, a pro-government newspaper ran a long article attacking the journalist and criticizing her personal life.

The authorities also regularly bring spurious criminal charges against journalists and activists who criticize the government. These include charges of extortion, tax fraud, and drug possession, which can result in extended prison sentences.

Officials also use other repressive methods to silence critics. Journalists have told Human Rights Watch that government officials have called advertisers and printing companies to warn them to stop doing business with publications that have criticized the government or face repercussions.

The government also limits freedom of expression in other ways, including breaking up peaceful protests, often with violence, and arresting and sentencing peaceful protesters, organizers, or participants.

In March, police detained Jamal Ali, lead singer in a popular band, and Natig Kamilov,bassist, as they performed at a public demonstration, after a scuffle broke out between them and unidentified men, apparently in response to some vulgar language Ali used to criticize the government. Police allegedly beat Ali and sentenced the musicians and one of the protest organizers to administrative detention for “hooliganism” in perfunctory and effectively closed trials.

At least 11 people who were detained and convicted following peaceful rallies in the country in April 2011 are in prison.

The EBU has publicly committed itself to promoting freedom of expression in the countries where its member broadcasters operate. The EBU’s General Assembly adopted a Declaration on Freedom of Expression, Media Independence and Democracy at its 2010 General Assembly, held in Baku. In the declaration, the EBU made a commitment to promote respect for the right to freedom of expression and made a number of recommendations for governments, including the government of Azerbaijan, to improve freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

The EBU’s one-day workshop in Geneva was attended by representatives of Azerbaijani and international nongovernmental organizations, along with officials from intergovernmental organizations, including the Council of Europe. A number of Azerbaijani officials also attended, led by Ali Hasanov, a senior official from the presidential administration. Representatives from Ictimai TV, Azerbaijan’s public television and the host broadcaster of the Eurovision Song Contest were also present.

“It’s disappointing that the EBU failed to use its own event on media freedom to take a firm public stand about the oppressive environment for free expression in Azerbaijan,” Williamson said. “With the world gearing up to watch the Eurovision festivities in Baku, there couldn’t be a better time for the EBU to speak out about Azerbaijan’s abysmal record.”

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