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The BBC has been accused of "whitewashing" the Azerbaijani dictatorship after showing a film supported by the country's ruling family and sponsored by British oil and gas giant BP, openDemocracy writes.

Viewers of BBC World News in August were promised to learn "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 produced by the British production company SandStone Global and supported by a foundation and media center run by members of Azerbaijan's ruling family. The film was introduced by TV host and historian Bettany Hughes, co-founder of SandStone.

Emin Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist who fled political persecution in Azerbaijan in 2015, accused the BBC of “whitewashing a dictatorship” over the film.

Huseynov, who was the subject of an award-winning 2006 BBC documentary about 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 attention to 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 of culture campaign group Culture Unstained told openDemocracy that media sponsorship mechanisms such as BP "legitimise" fossil fuel companies as they continue to invest in new oil and gas infrastructure rather than trying to achieve 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 indirectly promotes Azerbaijan's claims to Shushi, a city in Nagorno-Karabakh territory that Azerbaijan seized from Armenians during the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Now Azerbaijan wants to turn the region into a "green energy zone" with the help of BP.

Under its so-called "contract of the century," BP is the largest foreign corporate investor in resource-rich Azerbaijan.

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.

“We do not support individuals or political groups in any country,” a BP spokesperson told openDemocracy.

There was a segment in the BBC film in which Bettany Hughes went to the city of Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan seized the city in November 2020 as part of its brutal military offensive.

Speaking in Shushi in June 2022, BP regional president Gary Jones said Nagorno Karabakh has  “best solar and geothermal resources” – making it a “perfect opportunity for a fully net zero system”. BP plans to build a solar power plant in the town of Jebrail.

"Wonders of Azerbaijan," which made no mention of Armenia's ties to Shushi or Nagorno-Karabakh's fiercely contested history, aired in the last week of August.

Two weeks later, Azerbaijani forces launched new incursions into Armenian territory, the most serious escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani 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.

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