Beaten in Baku, threatened too

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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  • Hachiko

    Eric Saade No. 2? I don’t think so!

  • ToreBear

    In Nrk he said he was forced to kick a Persian flag, not an Iranian flag. They are only slightly different, but I think for Iranians/Persians they are very different in the symbolism they carry.

  • this is shame on NRK ,its not norway,first of all he must respect to Azerbajan and its culture so on.not every one have to understand norwegian hummor of fun.if you watch the relavant video you would understand what I mean. he is talking bullshit about Azerbajan if he try this in Iran (he’s home) they would hang him up. since he have norwegian citizenship he’s doing what ever he wants but he must understand every country has its own culture and regilation he must undrestand that and respect.

    • southernfjord

      It does not matter what he said, it does not give the airport police the right to strip search him and threaten and abuse the NRK team. If Azerbaijani authorities had made an official complaint they might have received an apology from NRK. Instead, they chose to act like a bunch of thugs which is why Azerbaijan is still not taken seriously by the rest of the world.

      • aquacalc

        “It does not matter what he said, it does not give the airport police the right…”
        I fully agree with you in spirit but, in practice, you’re very, very wrong.

        I don’t mean this to be condescending, but in the ‘real’ world when you’re forced to deal with the authorities of another country — especially those representing one of the many countries that notoriously do not respect the values of your native land — it is in fact **they** who decide what is ‘right’, regardless of what you and I believe to be correct. Like Thrasymachus in The Republic: Might makes right.

        Throw them a look that they (mis)interpret as insolent or not show them what they consider to be proper deference, and they just may decide to exact a price from you.

    • All the videos he filmed were innocent and funny, so obviously directed against Iran that only really stupid people could think that he seriously meant what he said. Shame ! Poor guy ! Before to judge someone , get the information from the reliable sources.

      • The main thing which ticked Azerbaijan off, when the reporter started kicking Azerbaijani flag. I understand the humour, he wanted to act like “Borat from Kazakhstan”; there was nothing original and unique about his humour. He is lucky that he was not prosecuted; you can compare to if I as a comedian come to Norway and spit on your king…how would you feel about that?

      • Ismayil Jabrayilov

        It is ridiculous. What kind of humor is there in insulting a coutnry’s flag?!

    • idacc

      Ever heard of irony?

  • Kicking one’s flag and thrashing its culture while basking in his hospitality? Plus hiding behind Iranian cover when relations between the countries get worse day after day owing to western embargos?

  • Here is the video. I would highly appreciate, if you add this video to the article and discuss the disrespectful comments about the host country.

  • I watched Amir’s videos, totally innocent silly humour. It is a shame that some Azerbaijanis like the one who commented earlier makes it sound like Azerbaijan is deprived of culture of understanding humour. As an Azerbaijani I can assure that beating and treating people like Azerbaijani officials did, for being silly is not part of my culture.
    This behavior of officials by the way is another sign of the dictatorial Aliyev regime that can not tolerate any criticism.

  • To be honest I do not believe this guy saying he was treated badly at all. After his video I would never believe him in my life. Look at his eyes, he is a fox. He is 100% iranian, and need norvegian passport to be safe. I strongly disagree that playing with other nations patriotism is related to the sence of humor.

  • At first glance it may seem like a humor but the things he tried to imply during the video is unacceptable. For example first sentence he used ” azerbaijan is a small country under the shade of great iran” . This sentence may sound funny for someone but for me it is quite offensive. This guy should know that iran is not a great country simply because most portion of its lands is historic Southern Azerbaijan where 35 million turkic people live and they are oppressed by iranian government they are not allowed to study in their language even. Why?? because they are scared!!!

    • i am not sure that this has really happened or its just a fake story

  • If you are a guest in the country, act like guest, respect the country, respect the culture and respect people. This is not first time when we have problems with some foreign citizens because they think that they can act the way they want and say whatever they want. And do not tell me this is all about freedom, this is about culture. Yes Azerbaijanis have different culture, we respect old people, we respect all religions, we do not like drunk people walking around and bothering people, we care about our families, we do not accept any jokes like this addressed to our family members, to our nation and our culture. Yes our culture is different from culture in Europe, so what? Does it make us bad? And dear Tamila Ros before calling people stupid ask yourself what would YOU do if anybody knocks the door of your house, you allow him to enter, you accept him like guest and then you see on TV that this guy made a “nice innocent and funny” film something similar to this about your house, your family members etc. I’m not defending those police men who acted like that, but I understand their feelings and this was just reaction to the action. SO IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE ABUSED, DO NOT ABUSE!

  • aquacalc

    I cannot support the thuggish and humiliating treatment that this guy received, but it appears that he and his associates are so naive that they should only travel overseas in the company of responsible adults.

    Do they really expect that the world in general — and the Aliyev clan’s Azerbaijan in particular !! — behaves according to the liberal standards of Norway and most of the West!?

    It reminds me of a Norwegian I know who had similar expectations driving into Serbia from Bulgaria — and had his clock cleaned (was beaten up) by the border guards for what they deemed to be his insolence.

    On the other hand, waiting for an international flight in Gardermoen, I saw a big, innocent looking Norwegian guy with his family commit the mistake of taking a few pictures of the planes from the departure lounge. A polite woman in uniform quickly and firmly informed him that it was forbidden. She insisted that he delete those images and stood behind him looking at each image as he complied. A proper ‘thank you’, she left, case closed. But do that in many countries — including the good ol’ post-911 US of A — and you should be prepared to be detained, have your gear confiscated, and treated like a criminal.

    The moral: “When in Rome…”

  • I’m so ashamed of my country right now. I apologize for the actions of those thugs! Not all Azeris are like that

  • Sava Savanović

    (a) I was personally a member of a delegation and I was treated like a King or a real diplomat by EVERY single azeri I had the chance to meet with the sole exception of some stupid taxi driver, category that I have already met in every country I visited.
    (b) When leaving at the airport, the custom guard noticed some Armenian visa on my passport. He said me why I have been to Armenia. I answered because of the JESC 2012 and my country promo tour in 2011. He made a phone call. 30 seconds later, an officer ordered to every custom guards NOT to question ESC guests about their previous visits to Armenia.
    (c) Personally, It’s hard to compare Azeris political situation to the one we enjoy in central Europe. If the choice is between the Aliyevs and democracy, our preference wll be obvious. But what if the only possible choice were between the Aliyevs and the shadow of Iran?
    (d) We were guests. Azeri were great hosts, but their political sensitiveness is just different than ours. The Azeri-Armenian conflict was barely in our news, like a minor conflict in the post Soviet area. But there, is was a national tragedy. We HAD to know it


    First time I like our police. Well done. THis stupid just insulted Azerbaijan. telling that small country in the shadow of great iran. Soon there will not be your great iran. 60 percent of iran’s population are ethnic azeris. don’t forget this. I would definitely beat him up if i saw him doing this kind of shame

  • ToreBear

    Having seen all of his videos, I think they are funny as hell. The last one was not as funny as the others though. I’m kind of shocked that some Azerbadjanis think this is insulting. He is playing the role of an Iranian journalist jelous of Azerbedjan hosting Euroviosion, and in order to find something positive focuses on Tooji who has been Norwegian since he was one year old.

    The story is framed as a bad propaganda piece made by a jelous neighbour. And the flag kicking: Really?! he was doing dance moves and his leg came close to a mini flag someone is carrying waste high.

    Someone needs more understanding of irony. Anyway, his programs were for a Norwegian audience, and I don’t think anybody thought any of this is for real. How some people in Azerbadjan, who live there could think this is for real is hard to understand.

    One thing I wonder about is how this came to the attention of Azerbadjani media/ security services. His videoes are on the norwegian state broadcasters norwegian web page relating to Eurovision.

    Were Azerbadjani security services browsing through all of the eurovision reporting in all 42 countries and assesing it’s content? Here is a hot tip for those who ordered this:

    Have someone with a sence of humor do this job if you feel you have to. Not one of the usual humorless idiots. An don’t rely on google translate!

    Anyway, the fact that someone on a assignment by one of the EBU members(NRK) for Eurovision is treated this way is shocking! The EBU received assurances that their journalists would be protected. And still this happened!

  • Midnattsol

    Last place! No wonder. This guy representing Norway? You get what you deserved – last place. Next time, find a person Norway can be proud of.

  • Haygazoun

    The article didn’t mention anything about the Armenian withdrawal from Eurovision afraid of this exact behavior (Armenia has to pay a huge fine for prioritizing the safety of the participants over fun and withdrawing from Eurovision.), it also fails to mention that Loreen called for action against the attitude of Azeris and their barbarian nature!

  • If Azerbaijan can not adhere to their ‘promise’ to not harrass folk associated with with ESC they should be expelled from next year’s contest by the EBU.

  • Iran’s azeri population is only about 15-20% and most are Persified. Don’t make up lies. And the guy was OBVIOUSLY just joking around. What idiot would take offense to such a thing?