It was reported today that two Azerbaijani bloggers have been arrested shortly after posting a video of a spoof press conference starring a donkey as a protest against the country's unaccountable politicians and timid state-controlled media. The video is pretty funny, so here it is, with subtitles:
Andjan Hajizade and Emin Milli have been charged with 'hooliganism', a catch-all law found in most post-Soviet countries and a favourite of state officials, since it is usually vague enough to make the tiresome job of proving anything much easier and attracts fairly heavy penalties (up to five years in jail in this case). Hajizade and Milli claim they were attacked in a restaurant and promptly arrested for starting a brawl. As a result of what could well be a ham-fisted state reprisal, their video has gone global.
Since Azerbaijani politics and interviewing tactics are hardly common knowledge, here's a quick guide. The country's president since 2003 is Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his dad Heydar, a former KGB and Politburo man. Father and son share a habit of winning around 80% of the vote in elections (often after the opposition have either boycotted the vote or alleged large-scale fraud) and have attracted repeated claims of massive corruption involving the country's huge oil revenues. The bloggers' video has been widely seen as a satire of the unchallenging treatment the country's media gives politicians - asking visiting dignitaries about their flight can and does happen.
What makes the video's popularity so much of a headache for the Azerbaijani government is its nailing of many of the cliches of the servile state-controlled (either directly or via pliant tycoons) TV news found in many post-Soviet countries. A common feature is footage of press conferences where reporters ask questions as a pre-planned springboard for the speaker to spout forth on his subject of choice, often run as a lead item. Here's Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko demonstrating the principle in faintly ludicrous military get-up. Incidentally, last week he admitted rigging the 2006 election, but only to reduce his share from the 'actual' 93% to a more believable and "European" 80%. The other major component of many shows tends to be interminably dull footage of staged 'meetings' between leaders and their underlings, designed to convey a macho getting-on-with-the job vibe, as capably shown here by Russia's then-president Vladimir Putin and prime minister Mikhail Fradkov.
In short, the main aim of much TV news in the former Soviet Union is to show leaders going about their daily business and looking in control, instead of dealing with the annoyance of discussing how the country should be run. Unsurprisingly, this does nothing to stimulate debate and everything to render opposition invisible in every way short of street protest. If a violin-playing Azerbaijani donkey can get people to ask the inconvenient questions, then he has my full support.