Azerbaijan Defends Human Rights Record as Baku European Games Gets Underway; Guardian Reporter Denied Entry

June 12, 2015

The opening of the inaugural edition of the European Games in Baku on Friday was overshadowed by news that journalists had been denied access to the country to cover the Games.

The Guardian’s chief sports reporter Owen Gibson had his application for accreditation and a visa turned down this week. Gibson’s reporting on the Games had included questioning why Amnesty International had repeatedly been refused entry into the country, decease with allegations of political prisoners and a denial of press freedom widespread.

The Games is supposed to be the jewel in the crown for the European Olympic Committee. It will feature more than 6,000 athletes from 50 countries and the government of President Ilham Aliyev has spent significantly on facilities for the latest sports event designed to provide the country with a short cut to international visibility.

But facing questions of a more serious nature on the eve of the opening ceremony, Azeri presidential advisor Ali Hasanov sought to allay concerns about the political backdrop to the event which runs until June 28.

“The question of political prisoners in Azerbaijan has become frequently used by western NGO’s and media, where the freedom of media and expression has been questioned” Hasanov said.

“I want to highlight that Azerbaijan has been a member of the council of Europe for many years, which means that our national court is in alliance with the European court and its laws.

“Anyone who is tried and charged in a local court can contest this at the European council of human rights – no one can be deprived this freedom.”

A Guardian report said it had applied for accreditation for Gibson in January. Flights were booked and media village accommodation confirmed by the organisers but confirmation of a visa was delayed “pending government background checks.”

The Guardian added: “Confirmation that the application had been turned down and The Guardian would not be able to enter the country to cover the event and associated issues was not received until Thursday morning – the day before the opening ceremony and three hours before the flight that had been booked.

“The decision appears to be linked to The Guardian’s trip to Azerbaijan in December to report on preparations for the European Games and the country’s ambitious attempts to expand its portfolio of international sporting events, against a backdrop of rising concern about the government’s clampdown on freedom of speech and any political opposition.

“Gibson met government critics including the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who investigates corruption in Azerbaijan’s first family. Ismayilova was jailed shortly after and remains behind bars.”

A statement from the European Olympic Committee said the ban on journalists was “completely against the spirit of sport” and promised the matter would be raised with authorities by its president, Patrick Hickey.

The EOC said: “It is always a matter of concern when a sports journalist wishing to cover a sporting event is refused access.

“Now that President Hickey is in Baku, he will be urging the highest levels of government to take the necessary steps to ensure full and free reporting on Baku 2015 for all media wishing to cover the European Games. These high-level discussions will be conducted in private.”

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