Freedom in Azerbaijan

Posted Sunday May 27, 2012 by John Gunders in |

Guest post from Sam Gunders, media and journalism student at the University of Southern Queensland. This report went to air on Phoenix Radio Online on Friday morning, 25 May, and is reproduced here with Sam’s permission.

On Sunday night we might be enjoying a drink or 10* and watching the Eurovision song contest for 2012 from Baku, Azerbaijan. It will of course be a fun night of gratuitous changes of both the musical and costume varieties; there will be a bit of singing and a lot of watching votes being counted and you can bet that it will be an entirely politics free zone.

Politics and Eurovision have mixed in the past, but it is usually frowned upon. In 2009, Georgia withdrew after they were told to change the lyrics to their song “We Don’t Want To Put In” no political grounds. They refused and took no part in the contest.

Beyond the stadium in Baku though there is a nation in need of attention from the wider world. Azerbaijan was rated in the 2011 Freedom in the World Report as being “not free”, scoring 6 out of 7 for political rights and 5 out of 7 for civil liberties. Just to be confusing, a 7 is actually the worst score in that report, 1 is the best. So Azerbaijan is not performing well.

An Amnesty International media briefing released on the 1st of May, Azerbaijan: Authorities determined to silence dissent to ensure successful Eurovision, gives the following chilling account:

“On 18 April several journalists who tried to film illegal house demolitions on the outskirts of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on Wednesday were violently assaulted.
Idrak Abbasov and his brother Adalet Abbasov were hospitalized after they were attacked by around 25 state employees and police acting under the supervision of officials from Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.”

And it continues:

“Hundreds of employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), accompanied by scores of police, were in the process of illegally demolishing houses in Sulutepe when the Abbasovs arrived with a female journalist, Gunay Musayeva.
According to local human rights defender Zohrab Ismayil, Sulutepe residents were not adequately consulted or notified of plans to evict them and demolish their homes. SOCAR wants to develop an oil field in Sulutepe.”

In-the-moment police brutality is not the only manner in which journalists are being intimidated and silenced in Azerbaijan. The same Amnesty International report also says:

“Khadija Ismayilova, a well-known investigative Azerbaijani journalist, received a threatening letter on 7 March containing intimate pictures of her, after her apartment was broken into and a hidden camera placed in her room.

Radio Free Europe reporter Khadija Ismayilova had been investigating claims of links between President Ilham Aliyev’s family and a lucrative construction project in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.

The pictures were accompanied by a note warning her that she would be “shamed” if she did not abandon her work. She refused and publicly exposed the blackmail attempt, resulting in the publication of a video showing her having sex.

Amnesty International is concerned that this vicious attack has been intended to do maximum damage to her reputation and puts her at risk of violence in predominantly conservative Azerbaijan.”

These are obstacles for journalists trying to report on injustice in Azerbaijan. Peaceful protests in Baku have been met with police brutality, going back to last year when authorities took a hard line approach to prevent Arab Spring style revolution from taking place in the country.

Eurovision is also providing a headache for Azerbaijan from the other side of the political fence. While foreign journalists and organisations try to put the spotlight on human rights abuses, they are also being hit for not being conservative** enough.

The Guardian reported*** on Tuesday that Iran has withdrawn its ambassador from Azerbaijan. Clerics in Iran have criticized the event for including a “gay parade”. The Guardian points out that no such “gay parade” is actually planned, although the history of the competition does have strong ties to homosexual expression, and that may be what Iran was alluding to.

Iran and Azerbaijan are both Islamic countries, but Azerbaijan supports secularism to a much greater extent than Iran.

Recently there was much talk about whether the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix should be cancelled given the human rights abuses in that country. The FIA went ahead with the race but many fans refused to watch it in protest. Should Eurovision be in the same situation?

Do journalists being sent to Baku have a responsibility to show us what’s really happening beyond the lights and limousines? When journalists are among those being viciously targeted by authorities? From the comfort of my radio studio on the other side of the world it is easy to talk about this, but it’s a very different matter to actually be reporting from the streets.

Best of luck to the journalists who do, but don’t expect to see much other than the glamorous parts of Azerbaijan on the TV telecast on Sunday.


*Note this is not an endorsement of binge drinking, relatively speaking. By the rules of most Eurovision drinking games, a limit of 10 would see you on water from about the third song onwards.

**I’m hesitant to use this wording because the implication is conservative = supporting violent assault. It is the case that the extreme conservatism observable in countries such as Iran is at odds with the social freedoms that most western countries (ie the other Eurovision competitors) support and enjoy, but the use of violence or other intimidation tactics to enforce that conservatism is something we should all condemn regardless of our culture or political leanings.

***I would include a link here but I’m certainly not going near the Guardian website looking for news about Eurovision on the day of the final (European Time). As River Song would say, “Spoilers!”

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