For all of us who support and defend freedom of expression and a free press, it is encouraging indeed to see that the ability of governments with bad or dubious human rights records to whitewash their image and promote their international profile through hosting big sports, arts and music events is on the decline.
From the possible boycott of Euro 2012 in Ukraine by the European Union and others, to this week’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, to Bahrain’s recent hosting of Formula 1, the message is clear for governments and corporations alike: only host and sponsor such events if you have a good track record on respecting rights and basic freedoms. Or you may find the desired media spotlight exposes rather than glosses over your failings.
This week that spotlight will turn to Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, which is hosting Eurovision, with its expected television audience of 125m. Yet in Azerbaijan, journalists, bloggers, a wide range of political activists, and musicians and artists too, continue to be intimidated, censored, imprisoned and even violently attacked – often with little or no chance of redress. The biggest surprise, given Azerbaijan’s record, is not perhaps that it has been allowed to host Eurovision but that it remains a member of the Council of Europe in the face of such attacks on free speech and its lamentable failings in establishing any genuine semblance of democracy.
The UK – heading into the London Olympics – can be more confident it can withstand a spotlight on its own democracy and rights record. But David Cameron must think twice before welcoming and greeting the heads of state of such rights-abusing countries as Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Ukraine, if the UK is not to fall into the trap of condoning or turning a blind eye to such oppressive behaviour.
Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship, London EC1, UK