Editorial: Azerbaijan, guilty until proven innocent

Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s one of the basics in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. It is one of the reasons that there was a lot of scepsis towards Azerbaijan when they were hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. The leaders in Baku have been repeadedly criticized by several independent bodies, such as Human Rights Watch, for its human rights record.

But the Eurovision fan websites are currently doing the same thing to Azerbaijan. According to recent accusations, the country has been rigging and buying its votes in the last couple of succesful years. Without any nuance, Azerbaijan is being judged as guilty without leaving open the possibility that the country might be innocent in this case.

ESC Daily has always been reserved about placing these kinds of articles about Azerbaijan. Let us look at the facts now in the articles made by other Eurovision websites. 12Points.tv claims the Azeri are buying there televoting-points in small countries, or countries with a small voting base; San Marino, Malta, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania and Moldova have been giving Azerbaijan high points in recent years. The (completely legal) promocampaign Azerbaijan gives in these smaller countries, is never mentioned as a possible, more plausible explanation.

On the day of the final in Malmö, a secretly shot video clip was published by Lithuania’s second biggest online newspaper 15min.lt. In the clip, Russian speaking men are offering youngsters money to vote for Azerbaijan (Lithuania is one of the countries that gives its 12 points to Azerbaijan). The video seems to be sincere, but no one questions the fact whether the Russian speaking men are actually from Azerbaijan or have anything to do with the Azeri delegation.

This week there came another article. The Swedish newspaper Skånska Dagbladet reveals how three countries are blatantly manipulating jury votes. Azerbaijan would be one of them. The article is based on one anonymous source: a delegation member from a country that we don’t know. One of the most important rules in journalism is: one source, is no source. Especially not if the source is anonymous, and therefore unverified. But this is the story that most people would like to hear, so why not publish it? The eagerness in which many websites copied the article, to put Azerbaijan in the spotlight again, is questionable.

I am not saying we should close our eyes to these kind of accusations. Where there is smoke, there’s fire. Right? And I am not a fan of conspiracy-theories. They are usually believed by – how to say this nice – not the smartest people. But let us not forget one false accusation towards Azerbaijan in 2012, and the way the Eurovision websites handled that situation.

One of the most popular websites of the last decennium, esctoday.com, was hacked. According to Eurovision-interest site Esckaz.com, a group calling itself “The Devotees of Azerbaijan” was taking responsiblity. It said: “Ignoring its people’s honor and morals, Azerbaijan’s ruling regime is trying to spread ungodly (sinful) thoughts, and plans to arrange a parade of the homosexuals before the eurovision song contest 2012.”

The chief editor of esctoday.com was being interviewed by several programs and websites. Because he came from The Netherlands, particularly Dutch websites made a big deal about it. The story went that Baku was unsafe, giving Azerbaijan a lot of negative publications.

A couple of days later, it turned out that the website was not hacked by people from Azerbaijan, but by a group of Iranian IT-nerds. They hoped that the media would pick up the story and write negatively about Azerbaijan, a country with many enemies – Iran being one of them. The story never got a proper rectification.

I am not saying the Azeri are being blackguarded again. But I do believe that we should be careful with bringing all accusation-rumours as facts.

Frank Dieter Freiling, Chairman of the Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group, stated: “Let me be clear on this. If we find any clear evidence that the Rules are being breached, including attempts of power-voting, we act immediately to do what we are obliged to do on behalf of the Members: to protect the Eurovision Song Contest brand.”

It is time for the EBU to take a stand. Not to publically accuse Azerbaijan. But to protect a country that has given the contest some great songs and/or performances the last couple of years. Something that all these websites seem to forget when they write articles on the reasons why Azerbaijan gets so many points each year.

Dennis van Eersel, editor ESC Daily