Plainclothes policemen detain an opposition supporter during an anti-government protest in central Baku on May 25, 2012.

© 2012 IRFS

(Berlin) -- We are only hours 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 May 26. 

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 (EBU), 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, beyond ensuring that the show’s estimated 100 million viewers, and the 1,600-strong travelling press-pack, are all happy.  It has to decide whether to breathe life into its own core mandate, of protecting and promoting the basic rights to freedom of expression. And it has to decide whether to stand up to the show’s host government, Azerbaijan – a government that systematically tramples these freedoms under foot (or, thinking about real-life journalists, beats them over the head, blackmails them or locks them in prison). 

So far, the EBU has very clearly decided not to confront Azerbaijan. 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 May 2 held a workshop in Geneva on these issues aimed at promoting ‘dialogue’ between the Azerbaijan authorities, local and international pressure groups (including Human Rights Watch) 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.

It is clear from these efforts that the EBU is unwilling to accept that if it engages seriously with a country like 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 five 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 issues 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 interest and concern about the human rights record of the host country as it has this year.

Of course singing is (usually) apolitical, but as this latter point indicates, in our increasingly fast-moving, interconnected world, more and more people make links between politics and other issues even if event organisers don’t like it. Wake up EBU!

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 May 26?

Hugh Williamson, is director of the Europe & Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch