Good sports: Which free-speech offending countries should we blow the whistle on?

Protests against increase in public transportation costs in Rio de Janeiro on 13 February (Image: Mauricio Fidalgo/Demotix)

Protests against increase in public transportation costs in Rio de Janeiro on 13 February (Image: Mauricio Fidalgo/Demotix)

The World Cup — arguably the biggest international event on the planet — is upon us once more. But in the past year, Brazilians have been using their rights to free expression to organise large-scale protests to show their dissatisfaction with hosting the tournament. Meanwhile, revelations of serious human rights violations and corruption related to 2022 host Qatar have emerged. This year, human rights are sharing the spotlight with the beautiful game and its stars.

This isn’t the first time politics and sports have mixed. Just think of the Formula 1 Grand Prix races hosted in Gulf kingdom Bahrain, where authorities have cracked down on pro-democracy protesters; or the 2008 Olympics organised by the Chinese communist regime, which employs two million people to help monitor web activity; or the 1978 World Cup held in then-military dictatorship Argentina. More recently, Vladimir Putin’s Russia hosted the Winter Olympics (and will host the 2018 World Cup) not long after implementing homophobic legislation targeting so-called “gay propaganda”, while Belarus, which has been ruled by dictator Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, organised the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship. Azerbaijan, with its, according to the latest figures, 142 political prisoners, is playing host to the inaugural European Games in 2015.

That’s without even considering the many human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities in participating countries.

The question that often comes up when these huge, prestigious events roll around, is how do we respond to the countries that repress their citizen’s free expression? Should we boycott? Should we use the attention to raise our voice on human rights abuses? Should we engage or ignore? Get involved the discussion using the hashtag #IndexDrawtheLine and tell us — where do you draw the line?

This article was published on June 12, 2014 at

From Eurovision to ice hockey — how do we engage with dubious regimes?

Belarus' Teo, in the music video for his song Cheesecake (Image: Yury Dobrov/YouTube)

Eurovision contestant Teo, in the music video for this year’s Belarusian entry Cheesecake (Image: Yury Dobrov/YouTube)

If you want a Eurovision of the future, imagine a faux-dubstep bassline dropping on a human falsetto, forever. That was how it felt watching YouTube footage of this year’s entrants in the continent’s greatest song-and-dance-spectacle.

The Eurovision Song Contest, born of the same hope for the future and fear of the past as the European Union, is approaching its 50th year. And strangely, it’s doing quite well. In spite of fears that the competition would end up as an annual carve up between former Soviet states, recent years have in fact seen a fairly equal spread of winners throughout the member states of the European Broadcasting Union (who do not actually have to be in Europe; a fact often missed by anti-Zionists who somehow see a conspiracy in the fact that Israel is a regular entrant in the competition is that channels in countries such as Libya, Jordan and Morocco are also members of the EBU, and technically could enter if they wish. Morocco did, in 1980). Since 2000, the spread of winners between Western Europe, the former Soviet states, and the Balkans and Turkey have been pretty much even.

While some of the geopolitics will always be with us — Turkey and Azerbaijan united in their hatred of Armenia, Cyprus and Greece douze-pointsing each other at every opportunity — the once-derided contest has in fact functioned as a genuine competition. Year in, year out, the best song in the competition tends to win, while the laziest entrants, not taking the event seriously as a songwriting competition (yes, we’re looking at you, Britain), tend to fall behind and then complain that Europe doesn’t “get” pop music.

The best songs and singers triumph, by and large. But Eurovision still does have a political edge.

Take Tuesday’s semi-final in Copenhagen. Russia’s entry, Shine, performed by the Tolmachevy Sisters and described by Popbitch as sounding like “almost every Eurovision song you’ve ever imagined” contained some unintentionally ominous lines:

Living on the edge / closer to the crime / cross the line a step at a time

Add an “a” to the end of that “crime”, and you’ve got the Kremlin’s current foreign policy neatly summed up in a single stanza.

I am not suggesting that the Tolmachevys were sent out to justify Putin’s expansionism. Nonetheless, the Copenhagen crowd were keen that Russia should know what the world thought of its foreign policy and domestic human rights record: as it was announced that Russia had made Saturday’s grand final, the arena erupted in jeering. The dedicated Eurovision fan is clearly not just a poppet living in a fantasy world of camp. They are engaged with the world, and particularly the regressive policies of countries such as Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, perhaps more so than your average European.

When Sweden’s Loreen won the competition in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, in 2012, she pledged to meet the country’s human rights activists. That same year, BBC commentator “Doctor Eurovision” (he actually is a doctor of Eurovision) made explicit references to Belarus’s disgraceful dictatorship, rather than simply giggle at the funny eastern Europeans.

This raises an interesting question about how we engage with dubious regimes.

Before the Baku Eurovision in 2012, there was some discussion over whether democratic countries should boycott the competition, sending a message to Aliyev’s regime.

“No,” Azerbaijani civil rights activists told Index on Censorship. “Let the world come and see Azerbaijan.” They felt that for most of the world, most of the time, they are citizens of a far away country of whom we know nothing. They wanted to take their chance while the world was looking. I think they got it right. As discussed last week, Azerbaijan is engaged in a massive international PR campaign, but to most people in the world since that Eurovision and the attention it raised for the country’s opposition, it has not been able to entirely disguise its atrocious record on free speech and other rights.

On Friday, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s world championship will open in Belarus. Though there was some discussion of boycotting that event, it has died down. Nonetheless, journalists from Europe and North America will be covering the event, and fans will travel too.

Belarus’s macho dictator Alexander Lukashenko is a keen ice hockey fan, and will be aiming to sweep up the glory of hosting a major international sporting event, not long after the country hosted the world track cycling championships in 2013.

Ice hockey fans and sports journalists are generally not the type of people who go in for Eurovision. But maybe they should try to take a leaf out of the Song Contest supporters book. Have a look at the country around them, learn a little about the politics, and spread the word about the side the dictators don’t want us to see.

Autocrats try to use these international competitions to control the world’s view of them. We should beat them at their own games.

This article was posted on May 8, 2014 at