Giving Please Release Me a new meaning
This weekend some 125 million viewers will be settling in for the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest being held in Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s the best way to get away from it all as this madly kitsch event seems to be in a fairyland of its own.
But in a brief moment of political reality, opposition activists demonstrated today against the regime outside the Azeri Public Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, the host broadcaster for the Eurovision Song Contest. As they demanded the release of political prisoners, their protest was quickly disrupted by police who bundled some 35 campaigners into vans and buses.
The host country’s ruling mafia has sought desperately to repress controversy. And the BBC’s choice of safe-as-houses old favourite Engelbert Humperdinck as the British entry seemed to bolster the non-controversial atmosphere. But a number of incidents have reflected political tensions around the world:
- Spain’s entry Pastora Soler was asked to throw her performance because if she won Spain would have to host next year’s edition. She has told Spanish radio that: “I think it is not the moment, neither for Spain nor for the Spanish public to win Eurovision. If we won, I think it would be impossible to stage the next edition because it costs so much money.”
- Ukraine’s entry Gaitana was attacked as not representing her country. Gaitana has a Congolese father and Ukrainian mother. Freedom Party leader Yuri Syrotyuk made the racist comment that “the vision of Ukraine as a country located somewhere in remote Africa will take root.” The singer, who sees herself as a product of the fusion of two cultures, said: “I'm so ashamed of this unpleasant incident, because Ukraine is a democratic country, where kind and hospitable people live.”
- Armenia, considered the host nation’s arch-enemy, is not competing because it fears for the safety of its contestants. The Armenian Eurovision act was censored on Azeri television last time around. Any Azerbaijani citizen who voted for them found that their mobile numbers became part of a criminal investigation as they were hauled in for questioning by Interior Ministry police.
But the most serious controversy over this year’s competition is whether it can used by Azerbaijan’s ruling family, the Aliyev’s, to provide credibility for their tyrannical misrule and plunder. The corrupt dynasty has been in power for some 43 years, President Ilhan Aliyev being appointed by his father Heydar as the sole presidential candidate in 2003. The Aliyev family has used the country’s extraordinary oil wealth – it produces some 100m barrels of oil per day – to live in vast luxury while most of the country’s citizens live in squalor.
BBC Panorama journalist Paul Kenyon visited Azerbaijan on a tourist visa. Although under constant surveillance, his excellent film, Eurovision's Dirty Secret, gives an insight into the regime and how it seeks to destroy anyone who stands up against it, such as opposition leader Ali Karimli, and journalists Emin Husynov and Khadija Ishamilova.
Kenyon’s film is a shocking account of a regime which seeks to eliminate even the semblance of resistance and spares nothing in persecuting any opponent. One singer, Jamal, was beaten, held for 10 days in prison where he was tortured merely for swear words. He was told that if he did not leave the country before the Eurovision competition, he would be re-arrested. A video blogger who held a mock press conference wearing a donkey outfit was arrested and held for 17 months in jail.
When Paul Kenyon confronted Engelbert Humperdinck inside the BBC’s studio offering him a t-shirt depicting a prisoner with the words “Please release me”, the singer’s minders tried to spirit him away, saying he had a plane to catch.
Meanwhile critics of the Aliyev government receive little or no support from the West because the US and Israel want Azerbaijan’s support against Iran and for their occupation in Afghanistan. So the Eurovision show must go on, however many journalists, bloggers and singers are locked up in Azeri jails.
A World to Win secretary
25 May 2012