The government of Azerbaijan has banned the Guardian, along with a number of media outlets and human rights activists, from entering the country to cover the inaugural European Games which begin on Friday.
The games will feature over 6,000 athletes from 50 countries, and the autocratic government of the President Ilham Aliyev has poured billions into the event, keen to put Azerbaijan on the map. The British Olympic Association has sent a team of 160 athletes to Baku, with the Olympic gold medallist Nicola Adams the flagbearer at Friday's opening ceremony.
Azerbaijan is paying the costs of all the athletes and has built shiny new facilities to host the games, but has come under heavy criticism from human rights organisations for locking up journalists and activists in the buildup.
Human Rights Watch said the runup to the European Games has seen “the worst crackdown the country has seen in the post-Soviet era”. It estimates that in 2014 the government prosecuted or jailed at least 35 journalists, human rights activists and critics on unfounded charges.
In an attempt to quash coverage of these issues, the Azeris have gone further, denying entry to a number of human rights organisations and journalists.
The Guardian originally applied for accreditation for its chief sports correspondent, Owen Gibson, in January, when the process opened. Flights were booked and accommodation in the media village confirmed by the organisers.
Following repeated inquiries as to the status of the accreditation, which also acts as a visa for entry to Azerbaijan, it was confirmed on 5 June by the head of press operations that approval for Gibson was still pending subject to government background checks.
Confirmation that the application had been turned down and the Guardian would not be able to enter the country to cover the event and associated issues was not received until Thursday morning – the day before the opening ceremony and three hours before the flight that had been booked.
The decision appears to be linked to the Guardian's trip to Azerbaijan in December to report on preparations for the European Games and the country's ambitious attempts to expand its portfolio of international sporting events, against a backdrop of rising concern about the government's clampdown on freedom of speech and any political opposition. Gibson met with government critics including the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who investigates corruption in Azerbaijan's first family. Ismayilova was jailed shortly after and remains behind bars.
"Government repression is making the European Games historic for all the wrong reasons," said Rachel Denber, the deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The European Olympic Committee still has the chance to prevent the Games from being tarnished by the Azerbaijani government's abuses, but time is running out."
Denber said the EOC has “failed the journalists and activists who are behind bars and were counting on the EOC to stand up for Olympic values.”
A statement from the European Olympic Committee said the ban on journalists is "completely against the spirit of sport" and promised the matter would be raised with authorities by its president, Patrick Hickey.
“It is always a matter of concern when a sports journalist wishing to cover a sporting event is refused access,” said the statement. “Now that President Hickey is in Baku, he will be urging the highest levels of government to take the necessary steps to ensure full and free reporting on Baku 2015 for all media wishing to cover the European Games. These high-level discussions will be conducted in private.”
Human Rights Watch said there were other cases of journalists being refused press accreditation, and human rights activists have also been barred from entry. Earlier this week, Emma Hughes, an activist with London-based Platform was detained at Baku airport and deported. She had been accredited to cover the games as a journalist. The government also ordered Amnesty International to postpone a trip to Baku to release a report on human rights in the country until after the games. In March, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on the region was also denied entry at Baku airport and deported.
"It's unacceptable that a country that wants to host an international sporting event is restricting the freedom of movement of journalists. The organisers of this event have got to ask if this is what they want to be associated with," said the shadow sports minister Clive Efford. He said the ban on critical journalists covering the event raised questions for sponsors, including British Petroleum.
“Freedom of speech is absolutely essential and it’s outrageous that any country would seek to restrict free reporting around a sporting event. Perhaps BP ought to be considering their position, if they are sponsoring an event that is resulting in journalists being prevented from reporting freely.”