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BBC whitewashes autocratic Azerbaijan

British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, British Petroleum, BP

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BBC whitewashes autocratic Azerbaijan

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is accused of antisemitism is not facing fresh allegations of whitewashing autocratic Azerbaijan in a British Petroleum (BP) sponsored film.

According to a report published by the OpenDemocracy, audiences tuning into BBC World News in August were promised that they would discover “how Azerbaijan’s oil wealth enabled the capital Baku to flourish” and “gain the reputation of being the ‘Paris of the East’” in the BP-sponsored ‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’ film.

British Petrolium spent £300,000 on the film, which was made by UK production company SandStone Global with support from a foundation and a media centre run by members of Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family. Broadcaster and historian Bettany Hughes, who co-founded SandStone, presented the film.

Emin Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist who fled political persecution in Azerbaijan in 2015, accused the BBC of “whitewashing a dictatorship” over the film.

Husyenov, who was the subject of an award-winning 2006 BBC documentary which followed pro-democracy youth activists in Azerbaijan, told OpenDemocracy that the BBC had undergone “a shameful transformation and given the floor to one of the bloodiest and most corrupt regimes in the world.”

He also accused the BBC of being “passive” in its coverage of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and questioned the lack of scrutiny over BP’s ties to the Aliyev regime.

The BBC told OpenDemocracy that the ‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’ film “is not a current affairs program”.

“The wider geopolitical story of the region has been reported on extensively by BBC News services”, a spokesperson said.

Chris Garrard, from the arts campaign group Culture Unstained, told OpenDemocracy that media sponsorship arrangements such as BP’s “legitimize” fossil fuel companies as they continue to invest in new oil and gas infrastructure, rather than trying to meet net-zero goals.

Given the Azerbaijani regime’s track record of human rights abuses, the BBC film’s “positive cultural perspective on Azerbaijan” worked to “BP’s advantage”, Garrard said.

The film also implicitly promoted Azerbaijan’s claims to Shusha, a city in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan seized from Armenian forces in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Azerbaijan now wants to turn the region into a ‘green energy zone’ – with BP’s help.

Under its so-called ‘contract of the century’, BP is the largest foreign corporate investor in resource-rich Azerbaijan.

It has long faced criticism from human rights and climate activists for its ties to the ruling Aliyev regime, which has been accused of “electoral fraud”, the silencing of dissenting voices and benefiting disproportionately from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth.

“BP needs to keep the [Azerbaijani] government onside and this [film] is a low-cost way of doing it”, said campaigner James Marriott, co-author of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation.

British Petroleum told OpenDemocracy it aims to work for the “effective and responsible” development of the Caspian Sea’s energy resources for the benefit of Azerbaijan and the company.

It added that it has a net zero ambition and is working to decarbonize operations and develop renewable energy in Azerbaijan.

“We do not support individuals or political groups in any country”, a BP spokesperson told OpenDemocracy.

A BBC spokesperson said: “Hosting advertising and sponsorship outside of the UK, which is clearly labelled as such and is completely separate to our editorial output, allows us to invest in the BBC’s world-class journalism, which provides independent and impartial news across all topics, including climate change, the energy crisis and geopolitics”.

Tajul Islam

Tajul Islam is a Special Correspondent of Blitz.

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