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The Azerbaijanis Who Aren't Feeling the Eurovision Glow

The EBU, which puts on the kitsch music-fest, is mandated to protect freedom of expression. It should do so in Baku

Published in: The Guardian

We are only days away from our annual European dose of kitsch and glamour delivered wonderfully by the Eurovision song contest, coming this year to our living rooms from Baku, Azerbaijan on 26 May.

The warm glow of European togetherness that the show usually generates, at least for an evening, is one of the things the European Broadcasting Union, the association of Europe's national public service broadcasters that puts the contest on stage, loves most about it. The EBU regularly reminds anyone listening that, particularly at such times of economic strain in Europe, it's this music-fest, rather than worthy pan-European political gestures from Brussels or elsewhere, that nudge us toward loving this continent.

This year, the EBU has an extra challenge regarding Eurovision. It has to decide how it tackles the issue of Azerbaijan's awful human rights record – not because it necessarily wants to but because activists in Baku and elsewhere, plus media and some governments in Europe, have forced the issue into the spotlight.

What has come to light? A terrible record on freedom of expression, with six journalists in prison on spurious charges; several dozen opposition political activists also behind bars, according to local monitors; crackdowns on peaceful protests, most recently on Monday in the centre of Baku; tight media controls creating a climate of fear in the country; and physical violence against those saying things the country's authoritarian government, led by President Ilham Aliyev, does not like.

One of the most recent victims was Idrak Abbasov, a respected reporter. Last month he was filming forced evictions and house demolitions by the country's state oil company when the firm's security officials, along with police, viciously beat him unconscious, leaving him hospitalised. Investigations into this and other cases are half-hearted at best.

The EBU's core mandate, of protecting and promoting the basic rights to freedom of expression, might suggest it would use the Eurovision occasion to confront Azerbaijan on its rights record. So far, however, it has very clearly decided not to do so. This is a setback for journalists and others in Azerbaijan standing up for freedom of speech, and a stance that the Baku government can use to legitimise its actions. It's also not great PR for the EBU itself.

For a media alliance that lives off freedom of speech to ignore abuses of that freedom on the doorstep of the show's sparkling seafront venue undercuts the organisation's own credibility.

The EBU has touched gingerly on freedom of expression in Azerbaijan in various statements, and on 2 May held a workshop in Geneva on these issues aimed at promoting "dialogue" between the Azerbaijan authorities, local and international pressure groups, and others.

Sadly, despite EBU pledges of training sessions for journalists in Baku, the organisation largely gave the senior Azerbaijan officials at the workshop a free ride on the government's serious human rights abuses.

If the EBU wants to engage seriously with a country such as Azerbaijan, it has to get off the fence. Such regimes are often brutal and cunning, and they need to face international pressure if they are to stop limiting freedom of expression. In using the EBU's influence, platitudes about more "dialogue", are not enough.

The EBU and its members in 56 countries do have influence, and, on paper, high ethical standards. The body boasts proudly of being "the largest association of national broadcasters in the world", and in 2010 crafted a new international declaration – after a conference in Baku, in fact – "condemn[ing] arrests, harassment and intimidation of journalists" in the EBU region and "call[ing] on governments to investigate all instances of violence against journalists and bring to justice those responsible".

So why so quiet on events on Azerbaijan? On the six journalists in prison on trumped-up charges? On the journalists severely beaten in recent months for doing their jobs? And on the climate of fear that means self-censorship is pervasive?

Human Rights Watch has, over the last nine months, used meetings and correspondence with the EBU to explain the severity of conditions in Azerbaijan and the need to speak out. We have asked the EBU to use its influence to raise publicly the issue of imprisoned and harassed reporters, and to support publicly the efforts by Baku's courageous civil society to organise freedom of speech events in the week before Eurovision.

Such steps would annoy Azerbaijan and, in our view, this is the reason the EBU has refused. It argues that Eurovision is apolitical, and that such issues should be raised on other occasions. But it also admits that, in the show's 57-year history, it has never faced such a wave of international concern about the human rights record of the host country as it has this year.

The EBU still has some time to speak out – and to get ready to monitor events after Eurovision, when the international spotlight will have shifted but local journalists and activists will be at their most vulnerable. Action now by the EBU would be a good signal, also, on how it will handle future Eurovisions. As one EBU official noted – what happens if Belarus wins on 26 May?

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