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Aidan White

Azeri_Minister_smallPosted: 7 June 2012

Region: Azerbaijan

By Aidan White

As the razzmatazz, glamour and kitsch of the Eurovision song contest begin to fade in Baku, political leaders in Azerbaijan are returning to what they do best – stirring up intolerance and hatred.

In the firing line are political opponents, media and rights groups who supported protests during Eurovision over the country’s poor human rights record.

Leading the backlash is the loud-mouthed Ali Hasanov, the head of the Ideology Department in the Administration of President Ilham Aliyev who in a controversial speech on May 31 called for an atmosphere of "public hatred" to be directed against dissident journalists and opposition media.

Hasanov railed against independent journalists and human rights activists in an anti-Western rant accusing them of bias.  He called on civil society groups to turn on the opposition and their allies in the media.

"This type of opposition members, journalists and newspapers should not dare to go out! Public hatred should be shown to them,” he said.

Hasanov opens the door to a new round of intolerance in a country where democracy and media freedom exist at best in twilight conditions.

Last year the Council of Europe’s anti-racism watchdog issued a stinging report with detailed complaints about Azerbaijan’s failure to protect the rights of migrants as well as religious and ethnic minorities. In this culturally conservative country many minorities, including gays and lesbians, are victims of routine discrimination.

It is precisely because of official disregard for the frequently deplorable and inhuman treatment of its own citizens that international and local groups used the recent Eurovision contest to draw attention to human rights abuse.

Many of them highlighted Azerbaijan’s long history of media censorship dating back to the Soviet era and noting how little changed when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991. Today almost all media outlets are owned or controlled by the state.

Independent voices have suffered as a result. One local journalist, Khadija Ismailova, has done strong investigative reporting on how the Azerbaijani president's family has been profiting from Eurovision-related construction projects. She has since been the target of a vicious and personal smear campaign.

Even worse, journalists face physical threats. There have been many violent attacks on independent reporters and media. It is seven years since the assassination of Elmar Huseynov, Azerbaijani editor of the independent weekly magazine, MonitorDespite international pressure to resolve the case, no one has been brought to justice.

In recent years the government has waged an aggressive media campaign against the Internet linking social media with deviance, criminality, and treason even though the penetration of Internet and social media is low compared to other countries in the region.

State television has shown programmes about ‘‘family tragedies’’ and ‘‘criminal incidents’’ after young people join Facebook and Twitter. In March 2011, the country’s chief psychiatrist claimed that social media users suffer mental disorders and cannot maintain relationships. In April this year, the Interior Ministry linked Facebook use with trafficking of woman and sexual abuse of children.

The call to public hatred of people who disagree with the government will increase fears of a new campaign to isolate minorities and political opponents. Particularly targeted are people from neighbouring Armenia – Azerbaijan is still in a state of war with Armenia over its occupation of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenians are widely and virulently attacked in Azerbaijan.

Hasanov’s outburst is laced with bigotry and hatred and itself poses a problem for ethical journalists. Should they report fully such intemperate statements, knowing that they might incite hatred and even violence in some sections of society?

It’s a problem that journalists on the ground face continually and has itself been the subject of a recent programme on ethical journalism organised by the International Federation of Journalists with local journalists’ groups.

Irresponsible speech by political leaders needs to be taken seriously and cannot go unreported, but it needs to be put in context, carefully edited and subject to legitimate and robust commentary about the impact that it can have on the communities and individuals who are targeted.

Public figures and spin-doctors like Hasanov should be taken to task when they abuse their power. Journalists both at home and abroad need to use the tools of their profession to provide an honest, ethical and vigorous response. If they don’t, Azerbaijan’s use of Eurovision as a piece of window-dressing to hide how it systematically tramples on the rights of its own citizens will have succeeded.

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