Why Eurovision in Azerbaijan is Ultimately a Good Thing
Azerbaijan, Culture and History, Media and InternetNo Comment
By Nicholas Alan Clayton
Dictatorships do not like the spotlight.
For all the state media bombast and extravagant events that autocratic regimes love to feed their own people, the last thing they are interested in is having hundreds of prying foreign eyes digging into the realities that their propaganda glosses over.
Even if only a small portion of their population sees foreign news reports, despots would prefer the international press ignore their countries altogether. They keep visa restrictions high, make foreign press accreditation hard to get and saddle visiting reporters with minders to steer them away from the story and scare the bejesus out of the journalists’ local sources.
It is for this reason that I respectfully disagree with European leaders who are increasingly calling for boycotts and venue changes for international events like the Euro 2012 in Ukraine and the 2014 Ice Hockey World Cup in Belarus due to the hosts’ human rights abuses and democratic deficiencies. Counter-intuitively, hosting international events brings these regimes exactly what they both need and hate: scrutiny, responsibility and sunlight.
Take Eurovision as an example, currently grinding into its third tacky day in the South Caucasus petro state of Azerbaijan. It has long been a point of shame for me that in my three years of reporting on the South Caucasus I have never been to Azerbaijan. The reasons are purely economic.
Americans have to pay $131 for a visa allowing them to stay in Azerbaijan for more than three days, Baku is as expensive as Paris, and so the only way to even break even on a reporting trip to the Land of Fire would be to sell several freelance pieces for the standard $200 fee – and probably on the same topic given the short turnaround. Alas, in this new age of internet journalism, reporters can rarely get away with selling similar stories to multiple organizations and that’s only if they are actually able to convince even one news desk to care about human rights abuses in a far-flung state with the kind of Eastern-sounding name that already sounds unsurprisingly corrupt and scary. By and large, Western publications mostly care about Azerbaijan for its energy production and the wire services have those angles covered.
This time, my pitches got rejected not because they didn’t draw interest, but rather because every journalist and his mother were already there. And, while not all of the media representatives that made up the swarm of cameras and notepads were adventurous enough to look for Baku’s ugly side, many of the staff writers who had been dispatched to cover the week of pop kitch got out of their hotels and started doing their homework. CNN International, which not only broadcasts tourism ads for Azerbaijan, but also ran a series of puff pieces on the country in the last year, dominated its Eurovision coverage with interviews of repressed human rights activists.
Likewise, Tom Parfit, coving Eurovision the Telegraph barely got in two sentences about the glitzy Crystal Hall Azerbaijan built for the contest before dedicating the article to the plight of Azerbaijani journalists who dare to investigate the regime.
Meanwhile, Baku police have been swiftly breaking up daily protests attempting to draw the world’s attention’s to human rights in the country, prompting international organizations to call on the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs Eurovision, to pressure Azerbaijan to respect its citizens’ right to freedom of assembly. Ironically, Azerbaijan has turned its barbs in the opposite direction, asking the EBU to penalize Sweden’s Eurovision entrant, Loreen, for meeting with human rights groups Wednesday.
On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on an “immediate stop to all actions aimed at suppressing the freedom of expression and assembly” in Azerbaijan. The resolution called for the release of six jailed journalists, condemned the beating of reporter Idrak Abbasov and decried the “campaign of blackmail and intimidation” against investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova.
In short, what Azerbaijan hoped would be a propagandafest for its oil-rich regime has instead turned to a flurry of negative headlines and official condemnation. Although it was the first time these incidents had been mentioned in their resolutions, none of the abuses listed in the European Parliament’s declaration were new. Abbasov was attacked more than a month ago and the blackmail campaign against Ismailova has been ongoing since the beginning of the year. These were only the most recent examples of intimidation and violence towards civil society workers in a country that Freedom House ranked 172nd in the world for freedom of the press. Still, EU organs did not officially note of these incidents until the cascade of bad press by Eurovision reporters had already crested.
North Korea made the same mistake earlier this year by inviting the international press to showcase its attempted launch of a satellite. Instead, Western coverage largely focused on an instance where the official bus driver made a wrong turn, exposing a couple dozen reporters to the derelict realities of North Korea it did not want to show. To make matters worse, the rocket launch failed, forcing Pyongyang to accept the only thing these regimes hate more than sunlight – embarrassment, both international and domestic. There were simply too many reporters there for them to fake it, even to their own people.
The occasion of Ukraine hosting the Euro 2012 football championship has given EU countries the chance to publicly vent their concerns about the country’s democratic backslide at a time when foreign policy wonks aren’t the only ones paying attention. With thousands of foreigners headed to Ukrainian cities to watch the matches, Yulia Timoshenko is (rightly or wrongly) becoming a household name.
There have also been calls to move the 2014 World Ice Hockey Cup from Minsk, Belarus due to its dreadful human rights record. In April, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President Rene Fasel said that there needs to be consistency in the international community’s outrage in these situations.
“The IIHF would furthermore like to invite a broader discussion whether it is recommended to generally use sports as a political tool, and, if yes, how to implement across-the-board consistency in such actions to avoid certain sports and championships from arbitrarily being singled out,” he said in a statement.
I would go a step further than Fasel and ask: Do we want all international events to be held exclusively within the territories of “clean” Western democracies? Or should international events be truly international?
The fact is that the populations of influential countries rarely get out of bed thinking about the problems of those living under governments at the bottom of Freedom House’s rankings, and very rarely are those governments forced to open up to international scrutiny.
If autocratic regimes want to open themselves up to a wave of headaches and criticism we should let them. If we want to truly make successful arguments to influential countries as to why they need to stay engaged with nations underperforming on human rights and governance, those countries need to be receiving at least some pressure from their own constituents who will be more familiar with the problems if they creep into their lives outside of the occasional mention in the international news briefs.
It won’t solve all the problems, but at least for a while, it will shed a bit of much needed sunlight on the place.