Beaten in Baku, threatened too

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Norway not only wound up last in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest but also landed in a serious diplomatic dispute with authorities in the contest’s host country of Azerbaijan. It didn’t turn out to be a very happy birthday for Norway’s contestant, singer Touraj “Tooji” Keshtkar, and Sweden stole the show.

Touraj "Tooji" Keshtkar had been favoured during the preliminaries to Saturday night's Eurovision final, but ended up in last place. Harassment of NRK workers in Baku also had nearly prompted NRK to pull Tooji out of the contest in protest. PHOTO: EBU/Eurovision 2012

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) almost pulled Tooji out of the competition before it even started on Saturday, to protest the treatment that an NRK team received upon departure from Baku. NRK reported that they were detained at the airport, threatened and abused by Azerbaijani police, apparently because the Azerbaijani authorities were provoked by the content of material broadcast by the team, which included a Norwegian-Iranian comedian who works for NRK’s channel P3.

“But we chose to go ahead (with Tooji’s performance),” said NRK’s program director, Per Arne Kalbakk. “Pulling Tooji out of Eurovision would have caused bigger problems for the arrangers, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and the artists. We decided it would have been the wrong reaction.”

Kalbakk and other top NRK officials including Charlo Halvorsen, who’s married to Norway’s Education Minister Kristin Halvorsen, called the conduct of the authorities at the airport in Azerbaijan “totally unacceptable.” They have contacted both Norway’s Foreign Ministry and EBU officials, and the foreign ministry has in turn demanded what it calls a “clarification” from both their counterparts in Azerbaijan and from Azerbaijan’s diplomatic mission to Norway.

The arena used for the Eurovision Song Contest lit up in the colors of participating countries' flags, including Norway's, but it was definitely not Norway's night in Baku. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/EBU

The threats and harassment experienced by the NRK team involved a series of comedy programs they aired from Baku. The programs featured Amir Asgharnejad, a comedian who pretended to be a reporter from an Iranian TV station and who conducted mock interviews with both people on the street and members of Norway’s delegation to Eurovision.

With statements like “Don’t be fooled by these glass and gold buildings” in Baku and references to local attitudes against homosexuality, officials in Azerbaijan and local media reportedly found the NRK P3 team’s programs offensive and an insult to their country. When the NRK team was leaving the country, they were stopped by police at the airport security checkpoint.

“We don’t know whether this was a real police action or whether this was a group of police who decided to act like thugs,” Halvorsen told NRK’s own website. “But for Amir, it was an extremely uncomfortable experience. He was taken to a hearing room, threatened and forced to remove his clothes.” Asgharnejad told NRK’s late-night national newscast that he also was harassed and forced to kick an Iranian flag on the ground, even though he resisted because he found that an offensive act. He said the police filmed their harassment of him.

All four team members were on assignment for NRK and accredited to cover Eurovision. EBU had secured guarantees from the authorities in Azerbaijan, known for harassing their own journalists, that all journalists would be well-treated and be allowed to work freely.

‘What on earth happened?’
Tooji, meanwhile, earned only seven points at the Eurovision final, three from the Netherlands, three from Sweden and one point from Iceland. That left both him and Norway in last place of the 26 countries that made it to the finals. A total of 42 countries had participated in Eurovision this year.

Tooji’s lowly seven points compared to the 372 points accumulated by Sweden’s entry, a singer named Loreen, who won the Eurovision Song Contest. Her song “Euphoria” gathered top scores from one country after another, while a Russian group of singing grandmothers won second place.

“What on earth happened?” Tooji wondered to NRK when it was all over. “Europe clearly doesn’t like me.”

He claimed he nonetheless “had a great time” at Eurovision and that “we couldn’t have done anything differently.” Tooji, who has made his full-time job with Norway’s child welfare agency a priority throughout his Eurovision involvement this year, also said he intended to stay involved with music but joked that he likely would stay away from Eurovision in the future.

Tooji, who turned 25 on Saturday and had hoped for a victorious birthday bash, was also still planning to celebrate. “It’s still my birthday,” he said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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