Controversy haunts Eurovision final
(CNN) — Performers from 26 countries are preparing Saturday to take part in the annual Eurovision Song Contest, a talent show that has seen this year’s host, Azerbaijan, mired in controversy.
The annual event attracts an estimated global audience of 125 million and is widely loved for its combination of over-the-top costumes, kitsch pop songs, sometimes dubious talent and international rivalries.
The host nation generally uses the event to promote itself to tourists and foreign investors.
But this year human rights activists have questioned whether Azerbaijan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, should be allowed to host the contest, citing its poor record on freedom of expression.
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Human Rights Watch last month urged the contest’s organizers and other nations to put pressure on Azerbaijan’s government to prevent “violence against journalists, social media activists, and human rights defenders; refrain from using politically-motivated criminal charges against journalists and others; release people imprisoned on politically-motivated charges; and allow peaceful assemblies.”
At present, Azerbaijan “remains hostile towards free media and other forms of free expression,” the body said.
“Police have violently dispersed protests, beating and arresting peaceful demonstrators and organizers.”
Azerbaijan ranks 162 in the latest Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Rights group Amnesty International says 12 people are currently in prison in Azerbaijan because of their connection to anti-government protests held last year.
Eleven of the prisoners began a hunger strike on 15 May which they intend to maintain until the end of the Eurovision Song Contest, Amnesty said.
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Fakhraddin Gurbanov, told CNN that human rights are guaranteed by his country’s constitution, but admitted there are problems.
“We are only 10 years old and we are building a democratic society,” he said. “It’s a long way to go. It’s not easy, it’s very challenging.”
He said the event would showcase his country’s culture and hospitality.
Emin Milli, a former political prisoner in Azerbaijan now studying in London, accused the government of detaining a few individuals on politically-motivated grounds in order to scare other people.
He told CNN he would like to see contestants in the live show comment on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan — a statement that would be seen by tens of millions of people.
This would, however, likely mean disqualification for that nation since the Eurovision rules preclude political comment.
Despite the “Euro-” prefix, contestants can come from any member country of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which includes numerous non-European nations, some, like Azerbaijan, from Central Asia.
The EBU is made up of broadcasters, not governments, and each year it is up to the participating broadcaster from each country to submit one act chosen through their own selection process.
More countries want to take part than can be accommodated in the competition, so semi-finals are held to pick the finalists.
The previous year’s winner earns the automatic right to host and compete in the next contest.
Five European nations — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom — also qualify automatically each year and are the biggest financial contributors to the event.
After all the finalists have performed, the voting begins. Countries award a set of points from one to eight, then 10 and finally 12 for their favorite songs. They can’t vote for themselves and they must announce the score in both English and French.
Television viewers can cast votes in their respective countries through telephone hotlines, which count toward the final vote.
Many perceive the voting to be tactical, with neighbors or members of regional blocs, such as the former Soviet nations, appearing to base their scoring on geopolitical alliances rather than artistic merit.
Ireland is head and shoulders above the field with seven wins to its name, including a run of three consecutive victories in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
France, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg each have five wins to their credit. Sweden and the Netherlands have four wins apiece, while Israel and Norway have a respectable three wins each.
Most winning acts or artists go on to sink without trace.
Among the few notable exceptions are ABBA, who won in 1974 with “Waterloo,” and Celine Dion, who was imported from Quebec to represent Switzerland in the 1988 contest.
CNN’s Atika Shubert and George Webster contributed to this report.