Sustained efforts to silence critical voices by banning foreign journalists and rights groups tarnishes the inaugural European Games. Host country Azerbaijan has a dismal human rights record and has been involved in a crackdown internally on groups and individuals who speak out against the government: there are currently 80 political prisoners in jail, including award-winning investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev and pro-democracy campaigner Rasul Jafarov. Others are in exile or in hiding.
It is vital that external observers should be able to see and hear for themselves what is happening in Azerbaijan and the European Games provide an occasion to do just that. Sadly, Azerbaijan appears to be taking the same intolerant attitude towards foreign journalists and civil rights groups as it does at home. Journalists due to cover the games have been barred from entering the country, despite the European Olympic Committees’ commitment that it would uphold the Olympic Charter and would guarantee that media would be able to report freely.
The day before the opening ceremony and three hours before boarding his flight to Baku, The Guardian’s chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson learnt he was banned from reporting on the games. Earlier this week Amnesty was told it would not be able to present its report about human rights violations committed ahead of the games in Baku as planned and its representatives would not be welcome. Emma Hughes of UK-based non-governmental organisation Platform was barred from entering the country upon her arrival at Baku airport.
This is not acceptable. Azerbaijan’s actions are in direct contravention of the Olympic Charter. The European Olympic Committees (EOC) has the responsibility to demand Azerbaijan immediately reverses its decision to bar civil society groups and journalists from the country. Without such representatives, the EOC risks being complicit in a cover-up of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, betraying the values and principles that are meant to lie at the heart of the Olympic movement.
Tomorrow, Index on Censorship will join Sport for Rights, Amnesty International UK, Article 19 and Platform for a demonstration in London calling for an end to the human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan, and the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders.