Eurovision 2012: Debating Rather than Singing in Azerbaijan

Safura Alizadeh of Azerbaijan performs in Baku in January of this year to promote Eurovision 2012, coming to her country next month.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

Eurovision is still more than a month away, but the international song contest is already receiving plenty of press — about the press.  The issue at hand is whether the contest should play a role in freedom of expression disputes. Last year, Azerbaijan won the contest, meaning Eurovision 2012 will take place in Baku.

Azerbaijan has recently imprisoned a string of journalists for their critical reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has appealed to the government to investigate the jailing of the journalists and see to their release. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon writes: “Your government has used significant resources to polish the country’s image ahead of the Eurovision contest and make it appealing to its international guests. However, we believe your efforts would be meaningless if the government continues to crack down on independent voices in the country.”

Meanwhile, Amnesty International launched a campaign directed at Eurovision, which is organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), saying the contest has an obligation to stand up for press freedom. The campaign calls on Twitter and Facebook users to pressure Eurovision and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to support freedom of expression.

Controversy has surrounded the anticipation of the contest. Armenia, which fought two wars with Azerbaijan in the twentieth century, withdrew from the contest last month. Activists have also seized the opportunity to highlight Azerbaijan’s human rights violations.

Freedom House describes Azerbaijan’s press as “not free.” The country ranked 143rd on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Azerbaijan has also jailed social media activists.

Azerbaijani officials refute the claims that the country’s free speech is restricted. And government and contest officials alike have dismissed the criticisms as political, saying that Eurovision won’t get involved in politics. Michelle Roverelli, a spokeswoman for the EBU, said Eurovision can be a platform for change, but politics should be left out of the actual competition.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle agreed, saying, “I’m against prematurely making calls for boycotts of events like a football tournament or a song contest, which don’t have much to do with politics.”  However, the events should be used to generate critical discussion of political issues, he said.

Are Westerwelle and the others correct — should politics get in the way of international entertainment?

The Olympics, perhaps the most prestigious model for such an event, uses the occasion to bring nations together. With a few notable exceptions, the approach has been successful. The Olympic Games show that international cooperation is possible, even if only through sports. One difference with Eurovision might be the aspect of song. A song contest should carry the values of creativity and freedom of expression. Jailing journalists leading up to a song contest is a more obvious contradiction.

Obviously human rights violations in other countries cannot and should not be ignored. But sometimes they are overlooked. Azerbaijan and Armenia competed in Eurovision 2011. So it’s really where the contest is hosted that makes the difference. Because of the contest procedures, the host country is not chosen per se. Eurovision goes to the country of the previous winner.

As a result, the EBU has minimal influence. Campaigns should target, as CPJ’s does, the government of Azerbaijan. In this case, the state holds the power. And it’s in the state’s interest to foster a favorable atmosphere going into the contest.

Azerbaijan’s hosting Eurovision shouldn’t be lamented. Instead, it should be relished as an opportunity to draw attention to areas that need improvement. Countries that find themselves in the spotlight must be prepared to answer to the concerns of the international community. Once there is accountability, we can sit back and enjoy the music.

(The photo is by Vugar Ibadov via Wikimedia Commons using a Creative Commons license.  To see the duo that won last year’s contest Ell & Nikki — otherwise known as Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal — from Azerbaijan, and one of their performances from last year’s contest, please check below.)

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