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New human rights campaign seeks to improve climate for artistic freedom of expression in Azerbaijan

By Rebecca Vincent.

Azerbaijan's repressive freedom of expression climate affects many sectors of society – the media community, non-governmental organisations, youth movements and political parties, among others. But a new human rights campaign, launched today (10 December 2012), seeks to address restrictions on the right to freedom of expression of Azerbaijan's artists – a population whose rights have so far received little attention.

Baku-based rights group the Human Rights Club is marking International Human Rights Day by launching an innovative new campaign called Art for Democracy. The campaign will use all forms of art to promote democratic reform and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan – including improving the environment for artistic freedom of expression itself.

"Art for Democracy is a unique initiative in Azerbaijan," said Human Rights Club Chairman and Art for Democracy Coordinator Rasul Jafarov. "We hope that this new, creative approach will be effective in engaging new actors – such as artists and youth – in discussing and promoting human rights in Azerbaijan".

The Art for Democracy campaign seeks to expand upon the concept of the previous Sing for Democracy campaign, which drew widespread international attention to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which took place in Baku in May. Azerbaijan's human rights record came under intense scrutiny as the international community questioned whether the contest should take place in a country that does not respect fundamental freedoms.

The Eurovision 2012 winner, Swedish pop star Loreen, took note of the issues highlighted by Sing for Democracy, visiting the campaign's activists prior to the Eurovision final to learn about the human rights situation in the country. Afterwards, she stated in an interview with Azadliq newspaper, "Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things" – a comment which the Azerbaijani authorities claimed was an attempt to politicise the Song Contest.

Post-Eurovision, as the authorities continue to crack down on more traditional means of exercising the right to freedom of expression, it has become apparent that new tactics are needed for Azerbaijan's human rights community to get its messaging out. The state maintains tight control over what is disseminated via broadcast and print media, and responds swiftly and harshly to any attempts by activists to protest repressive policies. Art for Democracy will seek to circumvent these methods of control and draw attention to human rights issues in a creative way.

The campaign will particularly aim to improve the environment for artistic freedom of expression in Azerbaijan, including by providing direct support to artists who are marginalised because of the politically sensitive nature of their work. This will include cases of artists who are subjected to human rights violations, such as exiled Azerbaijani musicians Jamal Ali and Azer Cirttan.

Rocker/rapper Ali was forced to flee Azerbaijan after he was detained for 10 days and reportedly tortured by police following his arrest at an opposition protest in Baku in March, where he made insulting remarks about the President's late mother during his performance. In his song 'Vermisel', released just ahead of Eurovision, Ali sang, "I was beaten for what I said, shoved into a police car". He said in an interview with the Guardian that police had told him "We'll do our best to make you leave the country" as they beat him.

Cirttan chose to leave Azerbaijan with his wife, an opposition activist, and their young daughter due to concerns for their safety. In an interview with Free Muse, Cirttan reported that prior to leaving the country, his attempts to publically perform were thwarted when authorities pressured venue owners to cancel his concerts. After seeing examples made of other opposition activists, when Cirttan noticed he was being followed in Baku, he and his family decided to leave.

But the authorities' actions to limit freedom of artistic expression did not start or end with the Eurovision Song Contest. As examined in a November 2011 Eurasianet piece, there is a stark contrast in the operating environment for artists who receive the government's favour and those who do not. The most "in demand" products include sculptures of the ruling elite, and artists attempting to work independently "struggle to find jobs". Young artists face particular difficulty in becoming established, as only a handful receive very small government stipends, and few are given workspace.

As Cirttan explained in his interview with Free Muse, musicians of non-traditional genres, such as rock, have "handicaps" in Azerbaijani society – even if their music is not political. He pointed both to overt forms of censorship by the authorities – such as not giving radio airtime to certain artists and putting pressure on or closing down venues that host the "wrong" concerts – as well as to self-censorship as the result of systemic forms of pressure, as contributing to the poor climate for artistic freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.

In the absence of other options, marginalised artists such as Ali and Cirttan are increasingly reliant upon the Internet as a means of disseminating their work - and so the fates of freedom of artistic expression and Internet freedom in the country are intertwined. While the Internet can currently be considered as partly free in Azerbaijan, targeting by the authorities of journalists and activists who express critical opinions online presents a serious obstacle for Internet freedom. Further, local rights groups fear that in the near future, authorities may start to interpret existing legal provisions in a more restrictive manner or introduce new legislation that will effectively close the only remaining largely free space in the country.

In addition to addressing the broader human rights and freedom of expression issues which hamper the ability of artists to express themselves freely, the Art for Democracy campaign aims to fill a gap which has been to date overlooked. "There are artists who want to contribute to the process of democratisation in Azerbaijan, but don't know how", noted Jafarov. "Art for Democracy will give them a platform to come together and use their talents to impact positive change. This is one of many reasons why Art for Democracy is so needed right now", he concluded.

December 2012

In addition to being a freelance human rights consultant and a Foreign Policy Centre Research Associate, Rebecca is the Advocacy Director for the Art for Democracy campaign.