Can a Song Contest Help End Human Rights Abuses in Azerbaijan?

April 3, 2012

Azerbaijan's Ell and Nikki celebrate with co-performers after winning the Eurovision Song Contest 2011. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

By Max Tucker, Azerbaijan campaigner at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London

One year ago, a series of peaceful protests against government repression in Azerbaijan were met with brute force by the authorities. The clampdown that followed resulted in the imprisonment of 17 activists and political figures, 14 of whom (including Tural Abbasli) are still behind bars today.

Shortly afterwards, on 14 May, Azerbaijan’s entry “Running Scared” won the Eurovision song contest, giving Azerbaijan the right to host the 2012 competition.

This was a doubly ironic event.

Firstly, the Eurovision Song Contest celebrates free expression, and is run by the European Broadcasting Union, an organization which claims to champion media freedom. Yet Azerbaijan has one of the worst environments for media and free expression in Europe.

Secondly, the title of Azerbaijan’s entry, “Running Scared,” is exactly what we saw scores of peaceful protesters doing when we visited Azerbaijan only a few weeks earlier, as they were pursued by heavy handed police.

Eurovision organizers have obtained a promise from Azerbaijan’s Prime Minister that press freedom will be guaranteed during the contest – a meaningless promise for ordinary Azeris struggling to speak freely and living in an atmosphere of fear for the past twenty years.

Eurovision spokespeople have dismissed the concerns of human rights groups as ‘political’, and therefore not their concern. We believe that, whenever and wherever the fundamental rights of any human being are interfered with, it should be a concern for everyone.

The Azerbaijani government has spent millions of dollars on preparing to host Eurovision 2012, and is keen for the event to be a success. The European Broadcasting Union therefore has an opportunity to ask the government for more than a temporary ceasefire in their campaign against free expression.

We’re calling on all supporters of free speech to get in touch with the Eurovision organizers, and ask them to demand action, not just words, from the Azerbaijani government. We’d like to see the European Broadcasting Union publicly call for the release of the 14 prisoners of conscience, and denounce the persecution of those criticizing the government.

Exercise your right to free speech here!

Twitter: Send Eurovision and President Aliyev the following tweets:

Hey @Eurovision – tell @presidentaz to free Tural Abbasli & others in #Eurovision host #Azerbaijan #freeaznow @amnesty

#Eurovision celebrates free expression. @Eurovision must push @presidentaz for free expression for all in #Azerbaijan

Hey @Eurovision – ask @presidentaz to free 14 peaceful protesters in #Eurovision host #Azerbaijan #freeaznow @amnesty

Join me and @amnesty in telling @Eurovision & @presidentaz – this isn’t politics, it’s basic human rights. #freeaznow

Join me and @amnesty in the #freeaznow campaign for free expression in #Azerbaijan. Find out how here


  • Post a message on the President’s wall calling for the release of the 14 prisoners of conscience in jail since last year.
  • Ask the Eurovision organizers to demand that the President release the 14 prisoners of conscience.

Visit and share our Eurovision campaign web feature on Azerbaijan, and see the musicians that support it.