The Independent is banned from Azerbaijan's Baku World Challenge for wanting to look beyond the marketing hype

 

The Independent was supposed to wake up this morning under the plushest sheets known to Azerbaijan. But a construction tycoon and friend of the President who had been due to host this reporter in Baku, the former Soviet republic's capital city, decided at the 11th hour that he was not welcome. So I'm still here in London, left out in the warmth.

As many as 100 representatives of the global media are converging today on Azerbaijan's glittering Caspian shoreline to watch a weekend of car racing. The Baku World Challenge is a jewel in the heavily burnished crown of the re-elected President, Ilham Aliyev, a man who would rather the media be dazzled than dwell on his increasingly relaxed approach to democracy, human rights, and press freedom.

Only one journalist was uninvited, without reason. It may be that the government there, its representatives here, the businessman hosting the event, the Luxembourg company promoting it, the PR firm in London selling it to the UK press – or a combination of the above – became concerned that The Independent would not confine itself to the racetrack and the five-star Kempinski Hotel. And they'd have been right.

This was an opportunity to scrutinise Azerbaijan's relentless, oil-fuelled march to market itself abroad as a centre for commerce and tourism. A car race alone might not have provided all the answers. What was it about life under President Aliyev that they did not want me to see?

As Baku prepares to put on a show on a scale not seen since its Crystal Hall hosted the Eurovision Song Contest last year, activists and campaigners say conditions there have got only worse since the election on 9 October, when Aliyev won an impressive 85 per cent of the vote. And they were already challenging.

As this paper reported in July, the opposition candidate was Rustam Ibragimbekov, the Oscar-winning director. But then he, too, was uninvited, by the Central Election Commission. The same body then published the "results" of the election on its new iPhone app before polls had opened (they, too, showed a landslide). But, it boasted, a thousand international observers had ensured that voting was fair.

They included the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, in his role as an MEP. "The system here is far more transparent than back home," he told Vice magazine in Baku. "The election might have been fiddled, perhaps in a 'my dick's very big, I've got a huge majority' kind of way, but even without that… the President won fair and square."

Rebecca Vincent is less convinced. The former US diplomat in Baku works in London as a human-rights consultant. She directs me to a report by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which independently observed one in five polling stations. It found "overwhelming evidence of systemic fraud", adding: "It may have been the worst vote count ever observed by an ODIHR election observation mission anywhere."

Vincent says Azeris have faced a harsh crackdown since the election, while Azadliq, the country's leading independent newspaper, is being driven by the state towards bankruptcy. Journalists have been jailed, while Amnesty International estimates there are 18 "prisoners of conscience" in the country.

"As the human-rights situation worsens, the regime's efforts to mask repression through PR at the international level appear to be intensifying," she says. The glossy brochure for this weekend's races, as well as state-sponsored supplements that have appeared in certain newspapers in the UK (including this one), make no mention of politics. But staying away from Azerbaijan is not the answer, Vincent adds: "Even many pro-democracy groups there are proud to host these events – they just want the whole story to be told."

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