Azerbaijan: The Cultural Learnings of Norway's Borat and Others
Eurovision may now be over, but the controversy over Azerbaijan's freedom-of-speech practices keeps grooving on.
The latest matters at hand kicked off with the burlesque. Norwegian-Iranian satirist Amir Asgharnejad, a sort of Norwegian version of Borat, claimed he was stripped and forced by Azerbaijani policemen to step on an Iranian flag in the Baku airport, Norwegian media reported. Norway reportedly nearly pulled its Eurovision contestant, Tooji, out of the contest over the incident and a diplomatic exchange is ongoing.
In the run-up to Eurovision, Asgharnejad, who has a comedy news show on Norwegian public television, pretended to be a reporter from Iran and dispatched several tongue-in-cheek video reports from Baku, one of which described Azerbaijan as a "lousy country" that "has lived in the shadow of great Iran," and is now busy "draining the earth for oil" with help from "their Satan worshiping partners from the West."
Such humor was reportedly lost on Baku, which is engaged in a longstanding face-off with Tehran over issues of Islam, pop and homosexuality. Baku denies that airport police mistreated Asgharnejad or any other member of Norway's delegation, but has stopped short of an apology.
On May 26, the Norwegian ambassador to Baku, Elring Skonsberg, went to the Azerbaijani foreign ministry to clarify matters. “I emphasized that freedom of speech is very important in every democratic society. We agree on that,” Skonsberg was quoted by The Norway Post as saying.
But the Azerbaijani government sometimes seems to have its own definitions of what constitutes freedom of speech.
In a May 31 statement filmed by Obyektiv TV, senior presidential administration official Ali Hasanov, the prime point-man for rebuffing accusations against Azerbaijan's civil-rights record during Eurovision, fumed at outspokenly critical journalists and human-rights activists, reportedly saying that a campaign of "public hatred" should be directed at them.
There's already been rich experience of that in Azerbaijan, including against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova (who works for RFE/RL and EurasiaNet.org), who has been targeted by a smear campaign for a series of reports highlighting the First Family's various business stakes, including in a company involved in the construction of Eurovision's Crystal Hall venue in Baku.
Now, on top of Hasanov's urgings, some doors to the public information that assists all journalists -- whether critical or not -- appear to be preparing to close, too.
Parliament is considering a draft amendment to Azerbaijan's "Obtaining Information" law that would deny the right to public information for reasons of everything from defense of "public order, health and morality" to the need to protect "the commercial and . . other economic interests of . . .individuals," APA reported on June 1.
Also under consideration is a proposal to render "confidential" details about company ownerships, Trend reported.
The measures are not likely to prompt critics to give Azerbaijan the benefit of the doubt on freedom of speech.
Responding to the brutal beating of one Azerbaijani reporter, the European Parliament on May 24 adopted a resolution calling for Azerbaijan to put the kibosh on "all actions aimed at suppressing the freedom of expression and assembly." Some parliamentarians have called for EU sanctions in response to human rights violations.
A response from Parliamentary Speaker Otgay Asadov conceded that problem areas exist, but called the resolution "biased and unfair." "[T]he possibilities of democracy are endless, a system of democratic values enriches itself . . . " Asadov wrote in defense of Azerbaijan's rights record.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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