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Sweden Plays Eurovision Host, With Main Sponsor Mired In Scandal

Playing with fire? The stage for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest is unveiled during a news conference at the Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden on May 2.
Playing with fire? The stage for the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest is unveiled during a news conference at the Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden on May 2.
By Daisy Sindelar
When Swedish singer Loreen won the Eurovision Song Contest last year in Baku, she emerged as an outspoken champion of human rights in the former Soviet Union.

She angered host country Azerbaijan by meeting with activists and saying rights in the oil-rich nation were abused "every day."

Two months later, during a trip to Belarus, she criticized President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for jailing opponents and visited the wife of imprisoned activist Ales Byalyatski, saying the plight of the divided family "breaks my heart."

So as Sweden prepared to host the 58th Eurovision final on May 18 in Malmo, there might have been hopes the liberal EU nation would follow suit and use the contest to gently push human rights onto the agenda.

Instead, Sweden was facing a rights liability of its own, with the communications giant TeliaSonera serving as the event's main sponsor.

The headquarters of TeliaSonera, a Nordic and Baltic telecommunications company, in Stockholm
The headquarters of TeliaSonera, a Nordic and Baltic telecommunications company, in Stockholm

TeliaSonera made international headlines last year when it was accused of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan's president, in exchange for access to that Central Asian country's massive mobile-phone market.

But even earlier, the mobile operator had come under scrutiny for its practice of granting post-Soviet client countries access to private phone and Internet records that were used to harass and even prosecute political opponents.

Listening In

An investigative report, aired on Sweden's "Uppdrag Granskning" news program in April 2012, documented cases in which TeliaSonera subsidiaries had provided security forces in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan with a real-time feed of citizens' private communication activities.

In one of the most egregious examples, the "Uppdrag" report found that KGB forces in Belarus used its access to life:), the local division of TeliaSonera's TurkCell, to physically track and arrest scores of protesters in the wake of Lukashenka's dubious reelection in December 2010.

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Quiz: Are You Too Cool For Eurovision Kitsch?


The co-producer of the "Uppdrag" report, Joachim Dyfvermark, has reported extensively on TeliaSonera's activities in the former Soviet Union. He says the company, whose majority owners are the Swedish and Finnish governments, knowingly made unsavory deals in order to enter the lucrative post-Soviet market.

"They took the risk, knowing about those countries' participation in crimes against human rights, knowing about the price they had to pay like in Uzbekistan, where they paid the regime money," Dyfvermark says. "They got the licenses thanks to the agreements with the regimes, giving the security intelligence total access to their customers 24-7. They're stuck with agreements with all these dictatorships."

In Azerbaijan, where press freedoms are among the world's worst, records obtained by "Uppdrag" journalists showed that TeliaSonera's local branch, Azercell, had allowed the phone of journalist Agil Khalil to be tapped after he published a piece about being beaten by government agents for his critical reporting. Khalil later fled the country after a second attack.

Ironically, Azercell had already become notorious for a scandal tied to Eurovision in 2009, when Azerbaijanis were summoned to the National Security Ministry to explain why they had voted for regional rival Armenia in that year's contest. An investigation revealed that Azercell had provided the government with the phone records of Azeris who had cast their impolitic votes by SMS.

Values Vs. Business

None of these concerns prevented the European Broadcasting Union, which oversees the national broadcasters in all 56 Eurovision member states, from naming Azercell as the competition's main sponsor when Baku made its lavish debut as host last year.

Annika Nyberg, EBU's media director, says the organization examines the records of all potential sponsors and includes freedom of expression among the values formally outlined in the union's statutes.

"We're not a human rights organization," she says. "We're a media organization, representing media companies. But we do have a set of values that we adhere to. And we look at sponsors based on our values and based on cooperation with them, and we are certainly very careful in choosing them."

Moldova's Aliona Moon performs the song "O mie" (A Thousand) during the first semifinal of the 58th International Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo on May 14.
Moldova's Aliona Moon performs the song "O mie" (A Thousand) during the first semifinal of the 58th International Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo on May 14.

Nyberg says the EBU opted to award the latest sponsorship contract to TeliaSonera in November after receiving assurances from the mobile operator that it was doing its best to address concerns about its business practices abroad.

Both the EBU and Eurovision are quick to distance the actual contest, with its glitzy pop traditions and a sometimes combustible mix of nations, from the more cynical world of politics.

But as the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, many watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues -- particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

Eurovision's Sietse Bakker, who supervised last year's Baku extravaganza, says he and other organizers "do not connect the contest to any political goals." But he acknowledges that the flood of media attention surrounding the song contest -- both positive and negative -- could "contribute to improvements" in the country.

‘Undeserved PR'

If rights violations in Azerbaijan are one thing, in Sweden they are quite another. TeliaSonera, which is facing years of investigation and potential criminal charges, has scurried to buff its image. The company's embattled CEO, Lars Nyberg -- no relation to the EBU media director -- has already vacated his post, as have a number of board members.

The company has also signed on to new industry principles on freedom of expression and privacy, although the guidelines -- which conclude with a call for civil society to "engage in constructive dialogue with governments and industry to collectively seek" solutions to privacy and free-speech issues -- are tepid at best.

TeliaSonera did not respond to a request for an interview but has defended its position in the past by saying its subsidiaries were aiding in law-enforcement efforts according to the legislation of the countries in which they were operating.

Then-CEO Nyberg, speaking at a shareholders' meeting in the spring of 2012, went one step further, saying phone and Internet services can contribute to creating an open society, and that TeliaSonera was right to maintain a presence even in countries "that leave something to be desired with regards to human rights."

Not everyone, however, is convinced. Isabel Sommerfeld, a Swedish rights activist, says TeliaSonera has done nothing to earn the right to sponsor Eurovision, with its handsome profits and a worldwide audience of 125 million.

"I think it's really undeserved PR for them," says Sommerfeld, who frequently travels to Belarus and witnessed the 2010 arrests firsthand. "TeliaSonera is an unethical company nowadays. They're still cooperating with regimes in the oppression of people. Other countries should not help the dictator with his oppression. And this is exactly what TeliaSonera is doing."

Daisy Sindelar

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: TeliaSonera Eurasia
May 27, 2013 10:56
[The following is the English translation of an Azerbaijani-language letter that was sent to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service by a media representative of TeliaSonera Eurasia.]


Dear Editor,

On May 16, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service published an article titled: ""Eurovision 2013"ün sponsoruna qarþý korrupsiya və casusluq iddialarý" [ "Corruption and espionage accusations against Eurovision 2013 sponsor” ] on its website. This article does not reflect the truth and is biased.

We inform you that TeliaSonera follows the local laws and regulations in the countries in which it operates. We are aware that the necessity to comply with the obligation arising from legal, administrative and licensing liabilities may cause some concerns about people's freedom of private life and freedom of expression. However, it is clear that all telecommunications companies must comply with the legislation of the country in which they operate.

At the same time, it should be noted that the current legal regulations in the countries mentioned in the article apply to all mobile operators in the countries where they operate and TeliaSonera has no other special agreement, which goes beyond local legislation and license requirements. Another aspect of these national regulations is that telecommunication operators do not participate in adopting and ruling any of law-enforcement activities performed by the state agencies.

Taking all that into consideration, we would like to note that information about the customers of Azercell company, where we are shareholders, would not be provided to any third party for reasons of confidentiality, except in cases covered by the legislation of Azerbaijan Republic,

Azercell is Azerbaijan’s biggest mobile operator and its purpose is to supply the people of Azerbaijan with high quality mobile communication services and to create opportunity to access requested information in an easy, reliable, and efficient way. We believe that our services are appreciated by our costumers.

Taking all this into consideration, we would like to ask you to issue a retraction due to false information contained in the above-mentioned article and to publish this letter on your website as the reaction to the article reflecting the official stance of TeleSonera.

Erim Taylanlar
TeliaSonera Eurasia
Vice-President, Corporative Communication
In Response

by: Daisy Sindelar
May 27, 2013 10:57
[The following is a response by the author of the article, Daisy Sindelar, to TeliaSonera Eurasia's letter.]

Mr. Taylanlar asks us to retract our story because it contains “false information,” yet he fails to cite a single falsehood in the article. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions from that.

TeliaSonera has defended its business practices in the former Soviet Union by saying that its subsidiaries are obligated to comply with local laws in the countries in which they are operating, and Mr. Taylanlar says the same in his letter. But RFE/RL’s article does not dispute this; it merely calls attention to the fact that, by complying, TeliaSonera subsidiaries like Azercell are providing security services with access to the phone and Internet activities of ordinary citizens.

This may not break any laws in countries like Azerbaijan, but it results in the harassment of journalists and even citizens who have done nothing more than vote for a rival country in the Eurovision Song Contest.

RFE/RL would welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue with TeliaSonera in an interview, and regrets that TeliaSonera did not respond to a request for an interview on this story.