Guardian to focus on political rather than sports side of Baku Games after reporter 'banned'

The Guardian has been “banned” from entering Azerbaijan to cover the inaugural European Games, which start today. (Baku venue pictured, Reuters)

As a result, head of sport Ian Prior said the newspaper will focus on the political and human rights side of the games rather than the sport.

The newspaper today reports that its chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson applied for accreditation in January and that flights had been booked and media village accommodation confirmed by the organisers.

But The Guardian said it was contacted by the head of press operations for the games on 5 June and told the accreditation application, which also acts as a visa for entry into the country, was still pending.

The newspaper said that it was informed yesterday morning – three hours before his flight – that Gibson’s application had been turned down.

The newspaper said: “The decision appears to be linked to the Guardian’s trip to Azerbaijan in December to report on preparations for the European Games and the country’s ambitious attempts to expand its portfolio of international sporting events, against a backdrop of rising concern about the government’s clampdown on freedom of speech and any political opposition.

“Gibson met government critics including the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who investigates corruption in Azerbaijan’s first family. Ismayilova was jailed shortly after and remains behind bars.”

Prior told Press Gazette: “Thinking about it yesterday as the news came through, we’ve sort of made a decision that we won’t be covering any of the sporting aspects of the games.

“That would seem a daft bit of acquiescence considering they’ve banned us. We will, however, be covering all the political aspects, any aspects in relation to human rights, and the surrounding politics. But probably not the actual sport.”

The Guardian reports that a number of other media outlets and human rights activists have also been barred from entering the country for the Baku games.

Gibson said in a Guardian column: “Despite being almost expressly designed to glorify a ruthless regime, the Games have also provided a platform for criticism; banning journalists and respected NGOs is likely to have the paradoxical effect of raising awareness of Azerbaijan’s issues."

Yesterday, the International Federation of Journalists and the European Federation of Journalists published a set of safety guidelines for journalists reporting on the games.

IFJ president Jim Boumelha said: “We are concerned that journalists may be subject to surveillance by the Azeri security services if they trespass the limits and boundaries fixed by their official accreditation to cover other issues than the Baku 2015 European Games.

“These guidelines will provide journalists on the ground with basic tips to support their free reporting in Azerbaijan. We ask our affiliates and all media to circulate them widely”.  

The guidelines, available on the organisations’ websites, include a list of apps to ensure anonymity and software and techniques to “mask activities and avoid tracking and spying”.

Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, the EFJ president, said: “Given the infamous human rights record of Azerbaijan, we encourage journalists to take extra caution to protect their sources and information when covering the event.”  

Organiser the European Olympic Committee said in a statement: “It is always a matter of concern when a sports journalist wishing to cover a sporting event is refused access.

"This is completely against the spirit of sport, which is about dialogue between people of different views and backgrounds.

"The EOC has taken this matter up with the Azerbaijan authorities and now that President Hickey is in Baku, he will be urging the highest levels of government to take the necessary steps to ensure full and free reporting on Baku 2015 for all media wishing to cover the European Games.

"These high-level discussions will be conducted in private. The EOC will not be commenting further at this time.”

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