Rights groups back Eurovision in Azerbaijan despite concerns


EUROPE’S BIGGEST human rights organisations have criticised calls for a boycott of May’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, while noting concerns about civil liberties in the country.

International campaign groups have reproached Azerbaijan this month for the sometimes violent arrest of protesters, journalists and musicians who joined or reported on demonstrations against the authorities, adding weight to appeals for a boycott from some Azeri dissidents.

Human Rights Watch has also accused Azerbaijan of forcibly evicting dozens of families from areas that are being redeveloped before Eurovision.

Reporters Without Borders, meanwhile, has condemned what it called a “despicable” smear campaign against a journalist who says intimate images of her were posted online to deter her from investigating corruption among Azerbaijan’s ruling elite.

The Continent’s foremost rights and democracy watchdogs – the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – oppose a boycott of Eurovision, however.

“I am concerned with the situation in Azerbaijan regarding freedom of expression, but the Eurovision Song Contest is an opportunity to have a debate and raise these concerns,” Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the 47-nation Council of Europe, told The Irish Times.

Sitting alongside him at the Vienna headquarters of the 56-state OSCE – which Ireland is chairing this year – was the group’s like-minded media freedom chief, Dunja Mijatovic.

“We should not be closing doors. On the contrary, our organisations should be door-openers in a society where we see problems. Any boycott would be a restriction of free speech from the other side,” she said.

“Azerbaijan is high on the agenda of my office,” she added. “We do have concerns and there are problems on a daily basis, there is harassment on a daily basis.” Azerbaijan ranks 152nd of 178 nations in a media freedom list compiled by Reporters Without Borders, which also calls President Ilham Aliyev a “predator of press freedom”.

He has run the ex-Soviet state since the death in 2003 of his father Heydar Aliyev, who dominated Azeri politics for decades. Despite persistent complaints about rigged elections and human rights violations, the oil-rich state bordering on Russia, Iran and Turkey enjoys good relations with the West.

Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia fought a war in the early 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic-Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. They are still at odds over the region, and Armenia has already withdrawn from the May 22nd-26th Eurovision.