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Imagine being stopped in the streets while taking a picture of a massive colorful building, asked to pack you camera and leave immediately, being beaten up by the police because of what you believe in or having a package send to you with still pictures of yourself having sex with your boyfriend. This sound maybe fictional to some this is the reality for people living in countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan and many other former-Soviet countries.
Citizens of these countries have the live their daily life knowing that the secret service, police or government officials are keeping track of whom they speak to, who they vote for, what they write about as journalists etc. Freedom of expression is one of the cores of democratic society, but in non-democratic societies where dictatorship is the form of government, freedom of expression is under big threat.
It´s no coincidence the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan have become more reported on in the European media in the last months. Hundreds of millions of Europeans will be spending hours and hours on end this week watching the Eurovision Song Contest, the two semi-finals and then the finals coming Saturday. The song contest is loved by many but despised others, and especially this year because of where it´s being held. Azerbaijan won the contest last year and as the regulations say, the contest is theirs to host the following year. Amnesty International and human rights activists have strongly opposed to this and Amnesty is saying Eurovision is deaf to the human rights abuses.
Friends and neighbors or faraway country?
We all might be citizens of Europe when it comes to Eurovision Song Contest but Azerbaijan is foreign to many Europeans. This beautiful country is situated in the Caucasus region far away from the beautiful flower gardens of Geneva, high-street shops in Paris or even further away from the rural areas of Iceland. However near or faraway, there are all sorts of companies from western Europe operating in the so-called ‘dictatorship-belt’ countries; Kazakstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, as Swedish investigative reporters Fredrik Laurin, Sven Bergman, Joachim Dyfvermark report about in their TV program Uppdrag Granskning. Uppdrag Granskning (e. Mission: Investigate) is a TV program SVT in Sweden focusing on investigative journalism. In an hour-long TV documentary; The Black Boxes, they investigated the operation of Nordic telephone company Teliasonera which is part-owner in telephone companies Life in Belarus, Azarsell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakstan, Ucell in Uzbekistan and Tcell in Tajikistan. Teliasonera is dominant in the telephone market in these countries and with full support of the governments, the police and secret services in these countries can monitor every call through tabbing, position coordinates, and gather all sorts of information about these telephone companies´subscribers. This has led to several cases of police harassment, violence, arrests, imprisonment and even murders of members of the public, journalists and opposition activists.
One fan of Eurovision Song contest voted for Armenia in the contest in 2009. Little did he know that the telephone company Azarsell kept records of his voting and he was summoned to the police station for questioning. And little did the Swedish shareholders of Teliasonera seem to know about the flow of information from the telephone companies to the secret services. Maybe they hardly care since about 1/4 of the profit of Teliasonera in 2011 came from these countries, total of SEK 36 Billion which is almost the equal of Sweden´s defense budget as stated in the documentary.
The Black Boxes is a must-see documentary for everyone. The result of the extensive investigative journalism by Laurin, Bergman and Dyfvermark leave you flabbergasted. Before you know it you will be boycotting Eurovision Song Contest, donating money to Amnesty International and spilling the beans about human rights violations in the ‘dicatorship-belt’ to friends and family. The documentary can be watched for free here.
Freedom of expression under threat
Reporter Paul Kenyon for BBC Panorama has also reported on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. For those still not convinced these abuses are taking place should also watch the 30 minutes long documentary Panorama; Eurovision´s Dirty Secret, available in two parts later in this post as well as on BBC´s iPlayer. Kenyon interviews journalists from Azerbaijan who are now in exile after being threatened, beaten and convicted to prison. A video blogger the was convicted to two years in prison for satirizing the regime, to name some of the cases discussed in the documentary.
Glitz, glamour and the big family fiesta
As for the president Ilham Aliyev and his family, they seem to have it all according to Panorama; Eurovision´s Dirty Secret. The first lady, Mehriban, received an outstanding vote of 94% when she was elected to parliament in 2004. Together they have two daughters; Leyla and Arzu and a son Heydar. At age fifteen, the only son seems to be doing very well for himself, owning a villa in the Palm Tree in Dubai. The family also seem to be true fans of the Eurovision Song Contest. Mehriban is the chairlady of Azerbaijan Eurovison committee and Layla is one of three hosts of the song contest. And guess what?! One of Aliyev´s son-in-law, boyfriend of Leyla, Emin Agalarov, will sing for audience and viewers during the voting. I wonder what role daughter Arzu will have in he semi-finals or finals. She must be included somehow in this big family event of the Aliyev´s in the Crystal Palace in Baku.
I visited Belarus two years ago to make a short documentary about the work of Icelandic Red-Cross in the country. Prior to my trip I was advised from several journalists and documentary filmmakers to make ‘certain preparations’, and while there, be very careful since KGB would most likely pay much attention to all my filming, especially in Minsk. During the three days I spent in Minsk, ‘random people’ in the street stopped me three times, asking what I was doing and lurking around where I was filming. When filming close to the Presidential Administration building, I had to stop filming altogether as ordered by the guards. I couldn’t even get away with pretending to be a tourist and take one still on my Canon Ixus. As I walked away, I carefully watched by the guards.
However, the people I got to know in Belarus were very welcoming and friendly people. I´m already looking forward to my next visit, sooner than later. Hopefully the human rights abuses will have stopped altogether and the citizens of Belarus and other former-Soviet countries will enjoy more freedom of expression than now.