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Azerbaijan Rights Situation Poor Despite Eurovision Spotlight

If anything, pressure on free speech has intensified in recent weeks, rights activists say.
By Shahla Sultanova
  • Rasul Jafarov, the campaign coordinator of the "Sing for Democracy" campaign in Azerbaijan. (Photo courtesy of R. Jafarov)
    Rasul Jafarov, the campaign coordinator of the "Sing for Democracy" campaign in Azerbaijan. (Photo courtesy of R. Jafarov)

Azerbaijani rights activists were hoping the Eurovision Song Contest would place their country under the international spotlight and prompt the government to relax restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. But with just two weeks to go until the contest, there is no sign of that happening.

Azerbaijan won the right to host the contest in Dusseldorf last year, when “Running Scared” by duet Eldar and Nigar was voted best song.

Human rights activists immediately saw an opportunity for advocacy work, setting up a campaign called “Sing for Democracy”.

“Eurovision is focusing world attention on Azerbaijan. We wanted the global community to be aware that Azerbaijan suffers from violations of basic human rights that hinder the development of democracy,” Rasul Jafarov, the campaign coordinator, said. “It’s a certainty that Eurovision will draw Europe’s attention to human rights, freedom of the press and political liberties. We were hoping that this attention would make officials less abusive of basic rights.”

In a statement released on April 27, Jafarov said these hopes had been dashed and the government had done nothing to relax its grip on civil liberties. On the contrary, he said, “the abuses are sadly increasing”.

Government officials dispute this depiction of the situation. Fazail Aghamali, leader of the pro-government Ana Vatan party and a member of parliament, said the campaign was unpatriotic and an attempt to blacken Azerbaijan’s name.

“The president of this country has given people every democratic right. Of course Azerbaijan has minor problems like many developing countries. But that doesn’t translate into all-out violation of democratic rights,” he said.” People can criticise the government openly in the media, at rallies, and on the streets. They’d never be able to do this if there was a campaign against human rights. It’s just propaganda – and the opposition and foreigners are behind it.”

Rights activists listed a series of events in the second half of April as proof that the government was tightening its grip rather than allowing people to express their opinions freely.

Taleh Khasmammadov, a blogger and activist with the Law and Order group in the town of Goychay was arrested in November and on April 20 received a four-year prison sentence for disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest.

Another activist, Oktay Gulaliyev, from the Kura Civil Society organisation, is in pretrial custody accused of inciting unrest and violence and resisting orders from government officials. If is convicted, he faces up to three years in prison. Gulaliyev claims his arrest is linked to an investigation he launched into how money earmarked for rebuilding damage caused by a flood on the River Kura was spent.

Journalist Idrak Abbasov was beaten by security guards from the State Oil Company on April 18 while filming the demolition of houses in Sulutepe, outside the capital Baku. Two policemen visited the office of activist Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy, and demanded to inspect the documents of everyone present, in what Yunus said was a deliberate attempt to intimidate her after she made a series of speeches critical of the government. (See Award-Winning Azeri Reporter Badly Injured in Attack.)

The assaults on journalists’ rights were the focus of a special report issued by Human Rights Watch on May 3.

“The European Broadcasting Union held a workshop in Geneva on May 2 – on the eve of World Press Freedom Day – on media freedom in Azerbaijan. It 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 report said.

Human Rights Watch spokesperson Carroll Bogert said the European Broadcasting Union, EBU, which runs the Eurovision contest, was a media organisation itself and should thus realise the importance of free speech.

“European broadcasters could not do the job they do if there were no freedom of expression in Europe. But there is no freedom of expression in Azerbaijan,” she said. “EBU has a real important opportunity to stand up for the very values that makes media freedom in Europe possible. This is their moment to say freedom of speech matters.”

Amnesty International was also critical of both the Azerbaijani government and the EBU.

“There has been an increase in the number of government critics and opposition figures pursued on politically motivated, trumped up charges, and the last two months have seen journalists and human rights defenders threatened, harassed, and even beaten unconscious by state officials,” Amnesty said. “Despite all this, the European Broadcasting Union continues to work with the authorities on Eurovision preparations in silence. This ‘champion’ of media freedom has failed to intervene on behalf of Azerbaijani journalists and to protect the values it claims to represent.”

The EBU, an association of European television companies, has stated several times that Eurovision is not a political event.

Ali Kerimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front Party in Azerbaijan, said it was impossible to make such a high-profile event non-political in Azerbaijan.

“It is a contest for Europe. That is why the European community has a right to know whether the host country shares its values. They want to know the nature of the country with which their leaders are cooperating,” he said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of a reaction from the European public to the grave human rights violations and democracy problems in Azerbaijan. It hasn’t previously caught the attention of the European media. But now Europe can sees the reality of this country as a result of media attention. And unfortunately, the reality they see is lack of democracy and violations.”

In the run-up to Eurovision, opposition parties have held their first officially-permitted protests since 2005, starting with a rally on March 17.

Erestun Orujlu, political analyst and head of the East-West Research Centre, said opposition groups were trying to make as much capital out of Eurovision as they could.

“There is more attention on the country than ever before. The opposition wants to take advantage of this,” he said.

The sharply-increased profile of Azerbaijan in the European press – particularly in German newspapers – has come as a shock to many in Azerbaijan.

“The government wasn’t expecting such active coverage in the European media of many negative aspects of life in Azerbaijan. It’s come as a surprise to them. It irritates them. That is the reason why they’ve started an anti-Germany campaign,” said Erkin Gadirli, co-founder of the Republican Alternative political movement.

German media have been particularly active in reporting on rights abuses in Azerbaijan. In response, state television channel AZTV and the government-owned Yeni Azerbaijan newspaper, ran several pieces attacking Germany in general, and comparing the critics to Nazis.

Jafarov said the government was only tolerating campaigns such as Sing for Democracy because of the media spotlight. Once Eurovision finished, he said, more arrests were likely.

“Soon after Eurovision, they will start taking measures against those who are critical of the government. They will complete that by the end of this year, so that they can start 2013 with no headaches. They don’t want human rights violations to be talked about in an election year,” he said, referring to next year’s presidential election.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

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