|Activists seek Eurovision conscience|
Norwegian singer Marthe Valle
PHOTO: Kjell Ruben Strøm
Norway’s chapter of the Helsinki Committee, known for its advocacy of human rights and democracy, has asked the singers and musicians taking part in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest to pay attention to what’s happening in Azerbaijan, which will host this year’s show. The country, run by a dictator, is regularly accused of human rights violations and crackdowns on freedom of expression.
“Everyone who takes part in this arrangement should feel an obligation to study the situation in Azerbaijan,” Berit Lindeman of Den Norske Helsingforskomite told newspaper Dagsavisen last week. “It’s the media’s job to make conditions in the country known, but I also urge the artists to engage themselves, and Norwegian politicians to use the event to demand release of political prisoners.”
A local human rights organization in Azerbaijan, called “Sing for Democracy,” also wants to use the annual Eurovision Song Contest to pressure President Ilham Alijev to introduce democratic reforms. If that doesn’t work, the group urges a boycott of the Eurovision finals, scheduled for May 26 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
“Sing for Democracy” is cooperating with several Norwegian organizations in the hopes of drawing attention to human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. At least one Norwegian artist competing to represent Norway at Eurovision, singer Marthe Valle of Harstad, is listening.
“Human beings’ right to freedom of expression is something I sure care about, and I in principle oppose voices being silenced,” Valle told Dagsavisen. “It’s especially bad when journalists aren’t allowed to report what’s going on in their own country.”
Valle has earlier engaged herself in Palestinian issues and said she’ll “closely follow” how the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)handles issues involving any infringement on freedom of the press or expression during Eurovision.
Charlo Halvorsen, head of Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s entertainment division that’s airing Norway’s run-up to Eurovision (called Melodi Grand Prix), said it’s the EBU that needs to take a stand on the human rights situation in its respective member countries, and whether it will have any consequences for Eurovision itself. So far, EBU has chosen not to put any demands on the authorities in Azerbaijan, apart from ensuring total press freedom during the weeks when the contest is held.
Human Rights House Foundation in Norway is ensuring that at least Norwegian participants know what they’re getting into in Azerbaijan. The foundation is working with other human rights activists to put together an information packet about the political situation in Azerbaijan with advice to artists, delegations and the press about what they may face, including surveillance and even physical abuse.
An estimated 40 percent of the population in Azerbaijan lives in poverty despite the country’s oil wealth. Crown Prince Haakon faced criticism for traveling to Azerbaijan along with a government delegation to attend an international oil conference last year.
Elisabeth Eide, deputy leader of Norsk PEN, the local chapter of an international group committed to freedom of expression for writers, said Azerbaijan authorities will surely try to present a glossy picture of their country, something the country’s official website for the event is already doing. Comments published on the site are only positive in nature, and those commenting must “be in line” with the site’s rules. Eide urged NRK to make sure they present the other side of the story. “I expect they will,” Eide said.
Meanwhile, three more Norwegian artists were chosen over the weekend to participate in the February 11 final of Norway’s Eurovision preliminary, Melodi Grand Prix: Malin Reitan, Tommy Fredvang and rock band Plumbo. They’ll join Nora Foss Al-Jabri, The Carburetors and Reidun Sæther, who were chosen a week earlier, along with three more to be chosen at the last semi-final in Florø next weekend.