Building Critical Mass for #Fatullayev

It is worth pausing analyse the success of this campaign and unravel the various elements.

Eynulla Fatullayev speaks with friends immediately after his release. Photo: English PEN / Turxan Qarışqa on flickr
Eynulla Fatullayev speaks with friends immediately after his release. Photo: English PEN / Turxan Qarışqa on flickr

Some good news: Eynulla Fatullayev has been released in Azerbaijan. I reported last month on the demonstrations I have attended on his behalf.

An immediate tweet discussion of the news caught my eye.  From @dontgetfooled

Wow. So “clicktivism” can work after all?

This refers to Amnesty’s clever little Twitter campaign launched earlier this week (here’s my contribution). @mePadraigReidy responded thus:

clicktivism, + several years of work by @tasheschmidt from Index, Article 19, @englishpen and, of course @amnestyuk

It is worth pausing analyse the success of this campaign and unravel the various elements. It is of course wrong to say that “Twitter released Fatullayev” although some media outlets will report it as such. My formulation would be to say that the Twitter response was made possible only because the groundwork had been laid by groups like ARTICLE19, Index on Censorship, Amnesty International and yes, English PEN. This ephemeral and intangible “awareness raising” is often undertaken as an act of faith – there are few metrics to measure how effective such campaigns are. As a campaigner, it is particularly encouraging to see how this work does actually pay-off in the long term. Communicating this to our donors and members is the next task.

We also cannot discount the other effects. @onewmphoto said:

With news of the release of Eynulla Fatullayev following @amnestyuk‘s Twitter campaign, also talk of a ‘Eurovision effect’ on FB #Azerbaijan

Again, it is useful to have a demonstration of how a particularly nebulous cultural activity or action actually has a real effect. Eurovision, and other types of International comings-together, are always accompanied by grandiose claims about ‘understanding’ and ‘cultural capital’ and fraternity between the human nations. (I am thinking of the World Cup and the Olympics as the Ur-examples of this). However, although there are country-themed parties and school projects aplenty, it is rarely clear how this translates into ‘soft’ political power or influence beyond our borders.

The Fatullayev case is therefore a good and welcome example of where these cultural events do have benefits. As soon as Ell and Nikki won the Eurovision Song Contest two weekends ago, the mainstream media and the social media became peppered with negative and savvy stories about Azerbaijan (it was my job to contribute some of them!). I do not think for one moment that @PresidentAz reads anything I write with my thumbs. But I do know that we all contributed to a critical mass of short sentences that together was of a significant size to be noticed. It is definitely the case that Azerbaijani officials, linguists and supporters would have been aware of this chatter. Having all these discussions in the public forum of Twitter and Facebook (and ensuring through hashtags that said officials were aware of the conversations) would have left them in no doubt that a Eurovision PR headache was awaiting them in April 2012. Such were the circumstances that made it easier for the Azerbaijani Government to release Fatullayev, than to keep him detained. The Independence Day Celebrations on 28th May provided a face-saving, patriotic excuse to act, despite the fact there was no material change in Eynulla’s case or situation.

It would be prudent to note some obvious caveats. First, Eynulla Fatullayev was pardoned – his conviction was not overturned. This places his release as a gift of President Aliyev, not the just functioning of the law. This is not ideal.

Second, this release of a prisoner does not mean that the space for free speech in Azerbaijan is getting wider. In fact, the opposite may be true, as the Government on Baku proposes new ways to restrict discourse online.  A much more difficult campaign, not centred around a free speech martyr, awaits.

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