Was Tony Blair making an ass of himself in Azerbaijan?
As regular readers of this blog may know, I always weigh my words carefully. But today I’m weighing them with still greater care. Why? Well, I’m just wondering what it must be like to bash out 1,000 words and get paid a cool £90,000 for delivering them in a quick speech.
Yes, this is what Tony Blair reportedly got for his recent speech in Azerbaijan. Nice work if you can get it. (That’ll be £630 for that last – very well-written – sentence, please. Thanks).
All right, I jest. The former PM has a perfect right to go around the world giving paid-for speeches. It would almost be strange if he didn’t – this is what top-level former politicians tend to do with themselves these days.
And, to make a full and honest declaration, I do effectively get paid for blogging for Amnesty. I’m employed at Amnesty and blogs are done in work time (mostly). So while I’m not exactly getting £90 per word in this post (more like two pence a word), I’m not going to begrudge Tony a bit of what the Simon Mann lot like to call “a splodge of wonga”.
But. Getting your splodge of wonga for extolling the virtues of a country that is denying free speech to journalists is … well, not exactly good form.
As Amnesty pointed out to the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, Azerbaijan has been clamping down on journalists for years and it wouldn’t have taken one of Mr Blair’s advisers very long Googling the country to discover this. Whether the former PM would still have wished to deliver his warm words on the achievements of Azerbaijan’s oil-rich state would, of course, have been a matter for him. But, you have to say, it can only have been cold comfort to Azeri journalists suffering harassment, physical attacks and imprisonment to see that this world-famous former politician has visited, spoken and … ignored their plight.
Certainly the father of jailed journalist Eynulla Fətullayev is angry. Fətullayev – to whom Amnesty recently gave a special media award for journalism under threat – is behind bars serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after daring to criticise the Azeri government in his reporting. It’s clear to human rights observers that he’s there not for committing a crime, but for his ordinary work as a journalist. (Please take action for Eynulla as part of Amnesty’s excellent greetings card campaign: hey, you know you don’t need all those lovely cards you’ve just bought from WH Smiths).
Hmm. OK, maybe Tony’s people missed reports on Fətullayev’s plight. But did they also fail to notice the very well-publicised “donkey YouTube” case? This was where two young Azeri blogger-activists – Emin Abdullayev and Adnan Hajizade – were jailed after their mock press conference, where a man in a donkey suit satirised the Azeri president. (To be precise, “hooliganism” following an encounter in a restaurant was the purported reason – but see Barrie’s post for an explanation of how their youth activism is the real reason for their loss of liberty). Emin Abdullayev and Adnan Hajizade have an appeal on their case next Tuesday (see Barrie’s update post), so, timing-wise, what a missed opportunity this was for Tony Blair to have mentioned the case!
You know what, I’m personally not so sure that the donkey suit was all that convincing. For my money, I much prefer this excellent dancing camel from a 1977 Top Of The Pops appearance for Jonathan Richman. I’m reliably informed that Jonathan himself is the front two legs of the camel. A young Tony Blair is rumoured to have been the back legs.
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