Sing Loud, Speak Out

For human rights activists in Azerbaijan, the Eurovision Song Contest is a blessing in disguise. Never before have their concerns received as much exposure in the European press.

During the last year, the Azerbaijani government made huge efforts to present Baku as a modern city with a rich culture to the future guests of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC). But while the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the government of Azerbaijan have always emphasized the non-political character of the show, the state of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights and democracy record have been dominating the international media coverage for months.

The “Sing for Democracy” campaign, uniting civil society and Human Rights groups, managed to attract huge international attention – not only to Azerbaijan’s culture, but also to Human Rights problems. These problems are to be linked to other visible international events. Azerbaijan is currently shortlisted for the Olympics 2020: In the eyes of the “Sing for Democracy” activists, global events like this are a good opportunity to promote democratic reforms in Azerbaijan. This is why the campaign does not wish to boycott or to cancel the ESC 2012.

Still, the situation of Human Rights in Azerbaijan has not yet improved because of the campaign. Nevertheless, civil society managed to operate in a global context. During the last three months, the “Sing for Democracy” activists visited several European countries where they met with journalists, politicians, national ESC-delegations, as well as with the EBU officials. The result: Plenty of articles and reports in foreign media focus on democratic problems. Never before has Azerbaijan gotten so much attention in the European media.

The Azerbaijani government reacted by singling out German newspapers and Germany in general as a regular daily target of their critical coverage in the style of Cold War reporting. Government-friendly commentators claimed that German officials were disappointed by Azerbaijan’s support of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline, because Germany has both economic stakes and a political interest in the pipeline’s competitor project “Nabucco.” In fact, on several occasions the German Ambassador in Baku had to respond to the heated and sometimes offensive media campaign against his country in the government-friendly press.

The government has spent millions of euros to boost the country’s international image for the ESC. Given the intensity and the broadness of the “Democracy” campaign, it remains to be seen if the net political outcome of the ESC was beneficial to the government.

Most of the expectations regarding the release of political prisoners, media freedom and other liberties voiced right after Azerbaijan’s ESC victory in 2011 are futile. The government was tough on every attempt to broaden the sphere of freedom beyond its control. The unprecedented atmosphere of international pressure in the Human Rights area will probably disappear shortly after the ESC – and the government will rigorously take action against local activists who supported the campaign.

But in the case of Baku, the ESC has already had political relevance. It is likely that further international events will raise the same issues that have been articulated over the past months.

Read more in this debate: Maria Martirosyan, Leyla Yunus, Julia Korbik.


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