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On May 2, the EBU brought together Azeri authorities and nongovernmental groups to discuss human rights and media freedom during a one-day workshop in Geneva. Ms. Roverelli said the EBU, which represents 85 media outlets in 56 countries, is promoting media freedom among its members, including Azeri public broadcaster Ictimai, which will air the contest on May 26.

Activists say the EBU’s approach does nothing to address intimidation and harassment by the regime, which often means Azeri media outlets operate under a policy of self-censorship.

Campaigners hope to bring enough international political pressure to force the regime’s hand. The U.S. and Europe have remained silent on the regime’s poor human rights record mainly due to Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves and strategic military importance, human rights officials say.

“[But now], everybody has Azerbaijan on its internal map and internal agenda, and I see that [the EU] will look at Azerbaijan in a different way,” Mr. Loning said. “They will keep on putting pressure on Azerbaijan’s government to release the political prisoners and change the human rights situation.”

Ms. Roverelli is more skeptical: “I don’t think ‘the Eurovision effect’ can turn Azerbaijan into a democracy overnight. I don’t think [the regime will] change just because of the contest.”

Josie Le Blond reported from Berlin, and Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this report.