By James Dowsett / openDemocracy
The BBC has been accused of ‘whitewashing’ the Azerbaijani dictatorship after broadcasting a film made with the support of the country’s controversial ruling family – and sponsored by UK oil and gas giant BP.
Audiences tuning into BBC World News in August were promised that they would discover “how Azerbaijan’s oil wealth enabled the capital Baku to flourish” and “gain the reputation of being the ‘Paris of the East’” in the BP-sponsored ‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’ film.
BP spent £300,000 on the film, which was made by UK production company SandStone Global with support from a foundation and a media centre run by members of Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family. Broadcaster and historian Bettany Hughes, who co-founded SandStone, presented the film.
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Emin Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist who fled political persecution in Azerbaijan in 2015, accused the BBC of “whitewashing a dictatorship” over the film.
Husyenov, who was the subject of an award-winning 2006 BBC documentary which followed pro-democracy youth activists in Azerbaijan, told openDemocracy that the BBC had undergone “a shameful transformation and given the floor to one of the bloodiest and most corrupt regimes in the world.”
He also accused the BBC of being “passive” in its coverage of the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and questioned the lack of scrutiny over BP’s ties to the Aliyev regime.
The BBC told openDemocracy that the ‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’ film “is not a current affairs programme”.
“The wider geopolitical story of the region has been reported on extensively by BBC News services,” a spokesperson said.
Chris Garrard, from the arts campaign group Culture Unstained, told openDemocracy that media sponsorship arrangements such as BP’s “legitimise” fossil fuel companies as they continue to invest in new oil and gas infrastructure, rather than trying to meet net-zero goals.
Given the Azerbaijani regime’s track record of human rights abuses, the BBC film’s “positive cultural perspective on Azerbaijan” worked to “BP’s advantage”, Garrard said.
The film also implicitly promoted Azerbaijan’s claims to Shusha, a city in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan seized from Armenian forces in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Azerbaijan now wants to turn the region into a ‘green energy zone’ – with BP’s help.
Under its so-called ‘contract of the century’, BP is the largest foreign corporate investor in resource-rich Azerbaijan.
It has long faced criticism from human rights and climate activists for its ties to the ruling Aliyev regime, which has been accused of “electoral fraud”, the silencing of dissenting voices and benefiting disproportionately from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth.
“BP needs to keep the [Azerbaijani] government onside and this [film] is a low-cost way of doing it,” said campaigner James Marriott, co-author of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation.
BP told openDemocracy it aims to work for the “effective and responsible” development of the Caspian Sea’s energy resources for the benefit of Azerbaijan and the company.
It added that it has a net zero ambition and is working to decarbonise operations and develop renewable energy in Azerbaijan.
“We do not support individuals or political groups in any country,” a BP spokesperson told openDemocracy.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Hosting advertising and sponsorship outside of the UK, which is clearly labelled as such and is completely separate to our editorial output, allows us to invest in the BBC’s world-class journalism, which provides independent and impartial news across all topics, including climate change, the energy crisis and geopolitics.”
BBC World News aired the two-part programme to its viewers outside the UK over a week in August – the same week that British audiences saw the BBC broadcast extensive coverage of the energy crisis and soaring household fuel bills.
Ads aimed at the “curious, eco-conscious traveller” were shown alongside the BP-sponsored film, as part of a brand deal between BBC Global News (one of the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries) and Azerbaijan’s official tourist board.
The BBC’s ‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’ film is part of a wider editorial series, also presented by Bettany Hughes, which explores areas of natural, artistic and cultural interest around the world.
The BBC licensed the content for the two-part programme from Hughes’s production company, SandStone Global. The BBC edited the material, but the copyright remains with SandStone. The production itself was funded by BP, whose sponsorship was made clear on screen when the programme aired.
Each of the two episodes was broadcast globally five times in late August, flanked by travel ads for Azerbaijan. It was not broadcast in the UK.
A representative of SandStone Global told openDemocracy that it was “standard practice” for production companies to get support from “local organisations” for on-location services.
Baku Media Centre provided logistics support to SandStone, while the Heydar Aliyev Foundation helped the UK company secure filming permits and access to unique heritage sites, the representative said.
The Baku Media Centre is run by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev’s youngest daughter, Arzu Aliyeva. It works closely with the family-run foundation.
SandStone’s representative said: “[The organisations’ involvement] does not amount to editorial influence, as all decisions relating to our productions are made by the SandStone Global team.” Arzu Aliyeva was not personally involved in the production process, they added.
The BBC spokesperson said: “Whilst the original programme was not made by the BBC, the BBC alone has full editorial control over everything broadcast on its channel, in line with its robust editorial guidelines.”
BP supported the programme as a “contribution to Azerbaijan’s global promotion” in partnership with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, named after the former president, who led the country both before and after it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Heydar Aliyev was succeeded in 2003, after ten years of rule, by his son, the current autocratic president Ilham Aliyev.
The foundation is chaired by Ilham’s wife Mehriban Aliyeva, who is also the country’s vice president.
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation is tasked with promoting Azerbaijan’s image abroad, including by advancing the government position over Nagorno-Karabakh. But government critics say this work extends to diverting attention from the regime’s relentless crackdown on dissent and its systemic corruption.
“The foundation was set up by the ruling family to whitewash Azerbaijan’s image,” Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani journalist living in exile, told openDemocracy. She added: “It can by no means be described as independent of the state.”
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.
Speaking at a launch event for the film in Baku in September, presenter Bettany Hughes said: “I understand history not through politics… I don’t get involved in politics at all.
“But I do go to places which have been extraordinary in culture. So it was exceptional for me to get access to places which when I came last time I couldn’t go to because there was too much conflict there.”
Hughes was speaking about Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory – but had been under ethnic Armenian control since the early 1990s.
That was until 2020, when Azerbaijan started a 44-day war to take control of part of the disputed territory – as Ilham Aliyev himself recently admitted. Thousands were killed in the fighting as Armenian forces attempted to protect it.
Indeed, the BBC series featured a segment where Bettany Hughes travelled to the city of Shusha, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan seized the city in November 2020 as part of its brutal military offensive. Prior to that, Shusha – known as Shushi to Armenians – had been in the hands of ethnic Armenians since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war three decades earlier.
Azerbaijan has now declared Shusha a “cultural capital”, and major efforts are under way to restore Azerbaijani culture in the city. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation is leading restoration works in Shusha. Some of these works featured in the BBC programme, including a sequence shot inside a reconstructed Soviet-era mausoleum to the 18th-century Azerbaijani poet and statesman Vagif. The monument fell to ruin when the city was under Armenian control.
Speaking in Shusha in June 2022, BP’s regional president Gary Jones said Nagorno-Karabakh had the country’s “best solar and geothermal resources” – making it a “perfect opportunity for a fully net zero system”. BP is planning a solar power plant in the city of Jabrayil, which Azerbaijan regained control over during the 2020 war.
‘Wonders of Azerbaijan’, which did not address Armenia’s connections to Shusha or Nagorno-Karabakh’s bitterly contested history, was broadcast in the last week of August.
A fortnight later, Azerbaijani forces made further incursions into Armenian territory – the worst escalation in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since the 2020 war.
BP’s Jones took to the stage at the Baku premiere of the film in late September to praise the “unwavering support of the [Azerbaijani] government” for his company and its co-venturers’ operations in the country.
Jones also spoke of the “joint effort” that went into creating the documentary. He thanked the Heydar Aliyev Foundation for its support and paid personal homage to the president’s daughter, Arzu Aliyeva, and to the Baku Media Centre she heads, “for their outstanding technical support” on the production.
This isn’t the first time BP has collaborated with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, or that the foundation has cropped up on the BBC.
Last year, BBC StoryWorks, the in-house content studio for the commercial BBC Global News, ran a separate tourism-focused campaign for Azerbaijan to mark the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.
The campaign included a paid-for advertorial that invited readers to “discover more” about Azerbaijan by following a link to an external website run by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. The ‘Azerbaijan’ portal claims (among other things) that Azerbaijan’s current president Ilham Aliyev “has always focused on ensuring a fuller provision of human rights and freedoms in the country”. It also contains information about the so-called “Armenian problem”.
Azerbaijani officials have a long record of using dehumanising language and imagery about Armenians, including opening a “war park” last year containing weapons, armour and vehicles seized from Armenian forces and wax figures of Armenians – as the BBC reported in the UK.
The link was removed after openDemocracy contacted the BBC for comment.
BP, meanwhile, has signed a cooperation agreement with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation to jointly implement some of its social investment projects.
Previous joint projects have included sponsored films, such as ‘The Last Session’, a 2018 documentary commemorating the birth of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic – the short-lived independent state that was ended by Soviet invasion in 1920. BP spent $320,000 on the project, which was organised by the Baku Media Centre. Arzu Aliyeva was credited as the film’s executive producer.
In its statement to openDemocracy, BP said that its social investment policy in Azerbaijan – and elsewhere in the region – was “in line with our group sustainability framework.”
The company said that it has supported over 100 communities in Azerbaijan through educational and cultural initiatives, including projects aimed at building opportunities for advancing the energy transition.