Eurovision's Shady Connections to Uzbekistan's Oppressive Regime

Amid all the kitsch, the singing contest's main sponsor's ties get scrutinized.
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Finland's Krista Siegfrids (centre, L) performs during dress rehearsals for the second semi-final at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest at the Malmo Opera Hall in Malmo, Sweden on May 15, 2013. (Reuters)

When Swedish singer Loreen won the Eurovision Song Contest last year in Baku, she emerged as an outspoken champion of human rights in the former Soviet Union.

She angered host country Azerbaijan by meeting with activists and saying rights in the oil-rich nation were abused "every day."

Two months later, during a trip to Belarus, she criticized President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for jailing opponents and visited the wife of imprisoned activist Ales Byalyatski, saying the plight of the divided family "breaks my heart."

As the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues -- particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

So as Sweden prepares to host the 58th Eurovision final on May 18 in Malmo, there may have been hopes the liberal EU nation would follow suit and use the contest to gently push human rights onto the agenda.

Instead, Sweden is facing a rights liability of its own, with the communications giant TeliaSonera serving as the event's main sponsor.

TeliaSonera made international headlines last year when it was accused of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan's president, in exchange for access to that Central Asian country's massive mobile-phone market.

But even earlier, the mobile operator had come under scrutiny for its practice of granting post-Soviet client countries access to private phone and Internet records that were used to harass and even prosecute political opponents.

An investigative report, aired on Sweden's "Uppdrag Granskning" news program in April 2012, documented cases in which TeliaSonera subsidiaries had provided security forces in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan with a real-time feed of citizens' private communication activities.

In one of the most egregious examples, the "Uppdrag" report found that KGB forces in Belarus used its access to life:), the local division of TeliaSonera's TurkCell, to physically track and arrest scores of protesters in the wake of Lukashenka's dubious reelection in December 2010.

The Democracy Report The co-producer of the "Uppdrag" report, Joachim Dyfvermak, has reported extensively on TeliaSonera's activities in the former Soviet Union. He says the company, whose majority owners are the Swedish and Finnish governments, knowingly made unsavory deals in order to enter the lucrative post-Soviet market.

"They took the risk, knowing about those countries' participation in crimes against human rights, knowing about the price they had to pay like in Uzbekistan, where they paid the regime money," Dyfvermak says. "They got the licenses thanks to the agreements with the regimes, giving the security intelligence total access to their customers 24-7. They're stuck with agreements with all these dictatorships."

In Azerbaijan, where press freedoms are among the world's worst, records obtained by "Uppdrag" journalists showed that TeliaSonera's local branch, Azercell, had allowed the phone of journalist Agil Khalil to be tapped after he published a piece about being beaten by government agents for his critical reporting. Khalil later fled the country after a second attack.

Ironically, Azercell had already become notorious for a scandal tied to Eurovision in 2009, when Azerbaijanis were summoned to the National Security Ministry to explain why they had voted for regional rival Armenia in that year's contest. An investigation revealed that Azercell had provided the government with the phone records of Azeris who had cast their impolitic votes by SMS.

None of these concerns prevented the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the national broadcasters in all 56 Eurovision member states, from naming Azercell as the competition's main sponsor when Baku made its lavish debut as host last year.

Annika Nyberg, EBU's media director, says the organization examines the records of all potential sponsors and includes freedom of expression among the values formally outlined in the union's statutes.

"We're not a human rights organization," she says. "We're a media organization, representing media companies. But we do have a set of values that we adhere to. And we look at sponsors based on our values and based on cooperation with them, and we are certainly very careful in choosing them."

Nyberg says the EBU opted to award the latest sponsorship contract to TeliaSonera in November after receiving assurances from the mobile operator that it was doing its best to address concerns about its business practices abroad.

Both the EBU and Eurovision are quick to distance the actual contest, with its glitzy pop traditions and a sometimes combustible mix of nations, from the more cynical world of politics.

But as the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, many watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues -- particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

Eurovision's Sietse Bakker, who supervised last year's Baku extravaganza, says he and other organizers "do not connect the contest to any political goals." But he acknowledges that the flood of media attention surrounding the song contest -- both positive and negative -- could "contribute to improvements" in the country.

If rights violations in Azerbaijan are one thing, in Sweden they are quite another. TeliaSonera, which is facing years of investigation and potential criminal charges, has scurried to buff its image. The company's embattled CEO, Lars Nyberg -- no relation to the EBU media director -- has already vacated his post, as have a number of board members.

The company has also signed on to new industry principles on freedom of expression and privacy, although the guidelines -- which conclude with a call for civil society to "engage in constructive dialogue with governments and industry to collectively seek" solutions to privacy and free-speech issues -- are tepid at best.

TeliaSonera did not respond to a request for an interview but has defended its position in the past by saying its subsidiaries were aiding in law-enforcement efforts according to the legislation of the countries in which they were operating.

Then-CEO Nyberg, speaking at a shareholders' meeting in the spring of 2012, went one step further, saying phone and Internet services can contribute to creating an open society, and that TeliaSonera was right to maintain a presence even in countries "that leave something to be desired with regards to human rights."

Not everyone, however, is convinced. Isabel Sommerfeld, a Swedish rights activist, says TeliaSonera has done nothing to earn the right to sponsor Eurovision, with its handsome profits and a worldwide audience of 125 million.

"I think it's really undeserved PR for them," says Sommerfeld, who frequently travels to Belarus and witnessed the 2010 arrests firsthand. "TeliaSonera is an unethical company nowadays. They're still cooperating with regimes in the oppression of people. Other countries should not help the dictator with his oppression. And this is exactly what TeliaSonera is doing."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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