THE BLOG
28/05/2012 06:27 BST | Updated 28/07/2012 06:12 BST

Eurovision Gave Human Rights a Platform in Azerbaijan

With the English delegation once again returning home from Eurovision with its tail between its legs following a dismal result, calls will only grow louder to pull out of the competition altogether. However, for the more conscientious among us this year's competition has served as far more than just a trashy manufactured pop-fest and it could do so again in the future.

With the English delegation once again returning home from Eurovision with its tail between its legs following a dismal result, calls will only grow louder - by those who care - to pull out of the competition altogether and put the BBC's reported £300,000 contribution to better use.

However, for the more conscientious among us this year's competition has served as far more than just a trashy manufactured pop-fest and it could do so again in the future.

While it has certainly put oil-rich but barely-known Azerbaijan on the map - a key objective of its authoritarian regime as it seeks to become a new Dubai - it also provided a platform to the country's human rights and pro-democracy campaigners who have struggled for years to get any real attention from the international media.

Despite the veneer of a modern, affluent and liberal European city, the government in Baku struggles with ideas of genuine democracy and freedom of expression.

Journalists, activists and opposition party members have been beaten, blackmailed, jailed, tortured and even killed (although a lack of a police investigation failed to catch those responsible) while there have never been free-and-fair elections.

This week protesters with dreams of a right to public assembly were swiftly and violently dealt with by police carting them off on buses to the outskirts of town or gaol.

But for once it was reported around much of the western world with vigour and concern - coverage the President, Ilham Aliyev, clearly tried to stifle - thanks to Eurovision. The contest has been used by former soviet states before in a bid to get noticed and be taken more seriously.

When Estonia won in 2001 the government launched a multi-million pound nation-branding campaign on the back of it and Ukraine specifically entered the competition to improve its international image.

Paul Jordan, who recently completed a PhD on the Eurovision and state-building and branding by former soviet states, said: "It's not seen as a tacky contest as it is in the west. It's seen, for some countries, as the only way of promoting themselves - along with the European football championships and the Olympics. Estonia's [Eurovision] was called Return to Europe distancing itself from its soviet past, but tragically, its also a way of getting themselves on the world map."

But never before has it been quite so hijacked by activists, with the help of the media, in the name of human rights.

It will have also given food for thought to the European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision and is made up of each member's state broadcaster, which has come under criticism for failing to put pressure on the Azerbaijani government or for even allowing it to compete.

Dr Eurovision, as Jordan is also known, said: "Eurovision is first and foremost a television show and EBU is not a political organisation, but there are questions when the organisation has survived on a free press and Azerbaijan has journalists in prison for criticising the government. There is no free press here, and they have not addressed that at all.

"I would say the EBU are at fault, but it's maybe not a question for now, it's a question for who they let in to the EBU in the first place. These sort of questions are for when they joined in 2008."

The same questions should be asked of the Council of Europe, Europe's oldest club that sets and monitors minimum standards of democracy and freedom of expression to its members, that admitted the autocratic state in 2001 despite having never had free-and-fair elections.

Meanwhile the Azeri government called on press and campaigners not to politicise the event, ironic given the highly political nature of voting between countries, while human rights activists called on performers to speak out against the regime.

The eventual winner, Loreen of Sweden, was the only artist to publicly visit an Azeri human rights organisation during the build-up, purposely mistranslated during a press conference by Azeri TV, but it was only the German jury chairwoman, Anke Engelke, who made a political reference during the live show slipping in an innuendo over rigged voting when she said, 'it's good to be able to vote and good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey Azerbaijan, Europe is watching you'.

Good luck indeed to the activists who will continue to fight for their rights as the media circus moves on to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine - a country that equally needs reform of its governmental institutions.

But whether you love it or hate it, the Eurovision has created a dialogue on important issues facing Azerbaijanis largely ignored until now and could do so again for a country or people in need of a voice.

But that voice would be a whole lot quieter without the BBC's.