Baku has seen some major re-development in recent years and boasts modern skyscrapers, a new Eurovision stadium and even a Debenhams, but sadly what it doesn’t have is democracy and press freedom.
In the run up to Eurovision, pro-democracy campaigners have gathered on the city’s streets to protest against a regime that is headed by President Ilham Aliyev – a man who inherited his power from his father and has effectively made himself president for life.
Campaigners say they have been arrested and beaten by police for trying to stand up to the government. These claims can be backed by a report from Human Rights Watch who witnessed police violently disperse two peaceful protests yesterday. Eleven political prisoners, who were jailed after taking part in anti-government demonstrations last year, are on hunger strike until Eurovision is over. Furthermore, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claim that Azerbaijan is one of the top ten jailers of the press. Eurovision is meant to be fun and sparkly but this year’s contest will undoubtedly be overshadowed by recent events. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the association of broadcasters that organises Eurovision, has not taken a strong public stance on Azerbaijan’s political situation and maintains the line that the song contest is apolitical.
However, it would be unfair to say that EBU has turned a completely blind eye to the situation. It held a general assembly in Baku in 2010 where it made a public commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in all countries where its member broadcasters operate. That includes Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has nine TV stations but only one is independent and it is often subjected to censorship. Broadcast media is dominated by the state.
Last year Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 143rd out of the 183 countries it surveyed for it’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The report, which ranks countries according to how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, gave Azerbaijan a score of just 2.4 out of 10 (0 means that a country is perceived to be highly corrupt).
Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, it has signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. It has also forged positive links with the EU and is a member of EU’s Eastern Partnership, a programme that promotes democracy and good governance, amongst other things. But despite all of this, it still has political prisoners and little freedom of expression.
Europe’s eyes will be on Baku on Saturday night and Azerbaijanis have had a rare opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights abuses at home. Let’s hope the world’s media doesn’t forget as soon as the singing is over and that change is on its way.