Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Eurovision hosts will only let us sing songs they like

Azerbaijan may be hosting the song contest but it gets nul points for freedom of expression, says Patrick Corrigan

Jedward and Engelbert Humperdinck are accustomed to being under fire for their questionable musical output. But the decision to hold the Eurovision Song Contest in the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan may see them offending people's taste for a wholly different reason.

The Irish duo and their gravity-defying hairstyles are due to join Humperdinck in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, this week.

But perhaps what Jedward don't realise is that Azerbaijan's human rights record would make your hair stand on end - without hairspray.

The oil-rich nation is steeped in repression, with Amnesty's last annual review of the country producing a catalogue of cases for concern, including intimidation and wrongful imprisonment of journalists, political activists, students and bloggers.

Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision by winning last year's event in Germany with the love song Running Scared.

But it is journalists and government critics who are running scared in the country, as Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father to the presidency, clamps down on dissent.

The government of Azerbaijan wants to use Eurovision to showcase the nation, yet as Bahrain found recently with its Formula 1 Grand Prix, international events can just as easily be used by citizens to draw global attention to internal repression.

Holding Eurovision in Baku lends a glittery legitimacy to the government, which deserves to be in the limelight for different reasons.

In recent months Amnesty International has documented how Azerbaijani authorities have targeted individuals for their journalistic work, or peaceful activism.

There was the case last year of government critic Eynulla Fatullayev, a newspaper editor, who was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison on a creative collection of charges including 'terrorism, defamation, and drug possession'.

He got off comparatively lightly. His colleague, Elmar Huseynov, had been shot dead a couple of years earlier by unknown gunmen. The police have failed to investigate the murder, which many believe was ordered by someone at the top of government.

His widow, Rushana Huseynova, has been forced to flee the country after trying to look into why her husband died. She now lives as a refugee in Norway.

During the last election, there were incidents of reporters being kicked out of polling stations and held by police for trying to record examples of vote-rigging.

In recent months, Amnesty has documented how Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly targeted journalists and activists.

In March, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova received a letter threatening the publication of intimate pictures of her if she did not abandon her work. When she refused and exposed the blackmail attempt, a video of her having sex was posted on a fake mirror website of Azerbaijan's main opposition party. Last month, state employees and police beat up journalist Idrak Abbasov while he was reporting on a forced eviction on the outskirts of Baku.

And in the last week, police in Baku violently dispersed two separate peaceful protests in the city-centre, detaining 18 opposition activists.

As with previous recent demonstrations, the protesters were calling for the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association.

So, while ageing crooner Engelbert and the Jedward brothers exercise their rights to sing cheesy pop songs in Baku, Azeris face an uphill struggle if they exercise their own rights to question their government.

When viewers tune in for Eurovision, the most convincing way for Azerbaijan to present itself as a modern nation would be for the authorities to end their crackdown on freedom of expression.

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