Is the Eurovision Song Contest the appropriate platform for an LGBT rights debate?

May 25, 2012

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Hi all,

I am really looking forward to watch the final of the annual Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) this Saturday. As part of the LGBT community the ESC has probably the same meaning to me as the soccer Champion's League has to all soccer fans across Europe. Joking apart, even if the Eurovision is not an official LGBT event it is obvious that many fans and admirers of this contest are members of the LGBT community. This year the competition of the singers and songwriters was partly pushed to the background.  Instead of speculating who is going to win the contest the dominating question is actually what comes after the contest: The German International Association of Human Rights recently released a radio commercial which is aired around the Eurovision Song Contest in Germany and got some good attention. It starts with frolic dance music and singing which is slowly fading-out into screams of pain and crying. Then in the end of the spot a voice poses the question what will remain when the music is gone.

What is the background of this commercial? This year's contest is going to take place in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan which is according to the International Democracy Index of The Economist a non-democratic system (Rank 140 of 167 countries) also because of strong deficits regarding human rights and freedom of press. Additionally, there are homophobic tendencies among the Azerbaijan society For example, on May 17th 2012, a group of unknown people placed a homophobic banner on ESCtoday.com, the most important independent website reporting about the Eurovision Song Contest, which said that the ESC was a gay parade and there was no space for immoral gays with strange outfits in Azerbaijan. Ever since Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest 2011 in Düsseldorf (Germany) there have been articles about discrimination and persecution of homosexuals in the media. For this reason and also due to allegation of violating other human rights several activists already called for a boycott of the contest this year.

Therefore, the radio spot is the culmination of a debate concerning human rights in Azerbaijan. For me, this radio spot raises another question: Is a huge media event such as the ESC the appropriate platform to promote human rights or should political or social issues play no role in a singer and songwriter contest?  

An interesting fact is that not all members of the German LGBT community agree with this criticism: The gay Journalist and ESC expert Jan Feddersen called the debate about the suppression of gays and lesbians a defamation of Azerbaijan because it is allegedly founded on false facts. He argues that homosexuals – e.g. in contrast to Russia – have not been brutally attacked in public. However, he admits that the society is of course not as liberal towards gays and lesbians as in most Western European countries such as Germany or the Netherlands. For him the strong criticism is inappropriate for an entertaining media event such as the ESC. His statement was a direct response to human rights activist Volker Beck from German Green Party and journalists who repeatedly accused the conditions of gays and lesbians in Azerbaijan. Especially human rights activists demanded a stronger engagement of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which organizes the event

Clearly, the song contest is one of Europe's major media events. Every year it gets more than 100 million people gathering in front of their televisions and thousands of spectators travel to the host cities. Therefore, there is a lot of money to earn: e.g. for advertisers, the hospitality industry, retailers. Beside the potential revenue and earnings the organization of the ESC causes huge costs for the hosting country: around 500 million Euros this year. Obviously, there is a big financial interest for the host to use the ESC as a promotion platform. This is the reason why organizers react very sensitively when a political issue comes up, just like this year.  

I think that it is a legitimate interest to promote the own country during an international event like the ESC but on the other hand governments have to accept justified criticism about political and social grievances in return. Especially, as European values such as tolerance and democracy are represented within this contest because of the historical development: Beside the economic and political reconciliation after the Second World War, European countries should also be brought together on a cultural way with an entertainment program. The organization to realize was the EBU which first organized the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956. I think that this contest has been based on common European values such as democracy, freedom of speech and tolerance. As a consequence these values should be a benchmark for all participating countries and every host of this contest has to be judged regarding this values. Therefore, I am very glad about the debate around the ESC in Azerbaijan this year and it stresses once again my position not to ignore all these issues in Baku and not let the regime there celebrate a festival of propaganda. A boycott on the other hand would be the wrong answer because this discussion attracts a lot of attention for the situation in Azerbaijan.

On the other hand I am not too optimistic that this will change a lot because the debate about human rights and maltreatment of gays and lesbians is not that new. In 2009 when the ESC took place in Moscow there has been a controversy about gay rights, too. This issue escalated on the day of the contest, when Russian public authorities broke down a gay demonstration with brute force. Unfortunately, the situation for gays and lesbians in Russia has not improved significantly since then although there was a lot international attention. Maybe this is a slight stimulus that the situation for all these people improves; certainly it is better than turning away.

Despite all criticism, I am sure that this Saturday again more than 100 million Europeans are going to watch the final of the Eurovision Song Contest. I am also really looking forward to see the show on Saturday and hope that the best contestant is going to win. But I am also looking forward to your feedback. What do you think about the human rights debate around an entertaining event like the ESC? Is that the right place for politics or should we leave that out?