Editorial: Democracy in its infancy

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“Azerbaijan is a democracy in its infancy”, my colleague Dennis van Eersel said during last year’s Eurovision. It will indeed take some time before the ex-Soviet state has progressed into a journalistic culture with plenty of room for criticism, opinion and context. Last year, this was still lacking and many Eurovision journalists complained about that. But our own journalistic culture also has a long road ahead.

Compared to other sport events such as the Tour de France, the World Championships of Soccer or the Olympic Games, the media circus around the Eurovision Song Contest is relatively young. Of course, afterwards there has always been some news coverage about the winner. But Eurovision as a two week press event, with semi finals, rehearsals, and a preselection season that (because of internet) can be followed all around the world – those developments are all very recent.

This is not hard to notice. Last year, many journalists demanded a guarantee from the EBU that critical questions would be allowed in Azerbaijan. But in the end, nobody actually asked those questions! Just like they have not been asked the years before in Oslo and Düsseldorf. Not because authorities prohibited those questions, but simply because no one dared to get to the core of the matter. Therefore, many press conferences turned into fan parties where the artist usually asked sharper questions than the journalists themselves.

The problem, however, seems to lie even deeper than that. Not only are the questions merely sugary – the system no longer accepts anything else. Critical notes are ‘not done’. In Düsseldorf, they were my fellow journalists of all people who started correcting me, when I had dared to ask the Moldovan band Zdob si Zdub if a band of their caliber could not do without unicycles and pointed hats.

There are many more examples. Last weekend for instance, the editorial team of ESF Magazine was banned from the event Eurovision In Concert because of a supposedly critical article last winter. Besides the fact that this article did not even remotely question the great success of Eurovision In Concert, the idea itself that a critical article would be a valid reason to ban journalists is a coarse violation of the idea of freedom of press.

Eurovision lacks space for critical journalism. This problem has a very simple cause: too many accredited journalists have no journalistic background whatsoever. You cannot expect someone who spends 50 weeks a year working as a greengrocer to be a professional journalist overnight. For these people, Eurovision is not a job but a jaunt.

So where are the professionals themselves? The answer to that question shows just how much the journalistic culture at the Eurovision Song Contest is still in its infancy: they are simply banned from the event. What the organization of Eurovision In Concert did with ESF Magazine is comparable to what the Dutch national broadcaster TROS has been doing to many journalists for years. Last year, I told Jacopo Massa (Litesound) “In the world of Eurovision, you have more freedom of press in Belarus than in The Netherlands”. I would wish it was just a joke.

It is this attitude that creates the current journalistic climate, in which mostly fans besiege the press conferences. Serious media outlets have to choose between either taking the safest way out, or having to face exclusion. In a climate like this, it becomes almost self-sufficient that journalists correct each other at even the slightest critical note.

This strategy favours no one in the long-term. The allowed group of journafans will write their saccharine articles, but only a small group of followers will read them. The professional journalists from big outlets can achieve a big audience – but they are not allowed to attend. And the less Eurovision they see, the less nuanced their articles become. In the end, it is the image of the contest that suffers the most.

Hopefully someday this amassment of vicious circles can be broken. Maybe the participation of Anouk will help, but still improvement needs to come from both sides. First, broadcasters have to stop declining the professional journalists and big media outlets. They even need to give them carte blanche in what they will write. Second, journalists should approach the Eurovision in a serious way. No more drool questions, no more unfounded criticism, and certainly no more violation of freedom of press. It is time for professionalization. Time for the infant to grow into maturity.

This is an English translation of the article previously published on ESF Magazine.