The fake British tourist who 'loves' Azerbaijan

"James Bonar" was described as a British tourist on Azeri TV - although his accent and lack of English somewhat undermined his story Image copyright Lider TV / Meydan TV
Image caption "James Bonar" was described as a British tourist on Azeri TV - although his accent and lack of English somewhat undermined his story

He was the British man who charmed locals with his praise for their country. Only problem was - he wasn't real.

In Azerbaijan, there's been a lot of sensitivity over the country's international reputation during the inaugural European Games. So people were pleased when James Bonar, ostensibly a tourist from London visiting to watch the first European Games, was effusive in his praise for the country on national television. The country is wonderful, he said, and Azeri food is delicious to boot. Bonar was interviewed in the resort city of Mingachevir as part of a news segment broadcast on a commercial pro-government Azeri station, LiderTV.

But raw footage later posted online showed Bonar coming across very differently. He had a thick accent and a very poor command of English - in other words, whoever he was, he was clearly not a British tourist.

The footage was viewed thousands of times on Facebook and prompted huge discussion online.

LiderTV later said they were duped by the pro-opposition station MeydanTV, which first broke the story of the fake tourist. "Another attempt to undermine Azerbaijan's amazing success," the station said in a later report. "Why would we need to plant a fake tourist if there are thousands of tourists enjoying Azerbaijan this summer?" But online some were sceptical about that explanation, while others used the opportunity to mock Azeri media.

"This country is going to surpass North Korea. We don't need to laugh at them anymore, we are in their situation ourselves now," said one comment.

"Even if he's fake," tweeted @HasaNahid, "at least he should have tried to do a British accent." Another commented: "Sometimes I'm ashamed of being from this country, when I see and hear things like this. At least we're winning medals in some competitions." (Azerbaijan currently stands second in the European Games medal table.)

Azeris also created memes and parody videos - such as this one by an Azeri photojournalist pretending to be a German tourist.

International perception of Azerbaijan has been a touchy subject in the run up to Europe's first continent-wide Olympic-style sporting festival. Earlier BBC Trending reported on the tussle between government supporters and human rights groups over the "Baku 2015" hashtag. After rights activists targeted the hype around the games to highlight crackdowns on journalists and speech restrictions in Azerbaijan, co-ordinated tweets were sent out trying to promote a more positive image of the country.

But while some suspected the interview with the fake British tourist was a bit of misleading propaganda, others were more forgiving. On the BBC Azeri Facebook page, Aida Aysa Adilqizi portrayed the interview as a mistake, and blamed pressure on journalists rather than any sinister forces: "There is such an important event going on in the country. I'm a journalist and I know that there's so much work. We are working harder than ever. That journalist may have been inexperienced. This could happen to anyone if they're just starting out."

Reporting by Leyla Najafli

Blog by Mike Wendling

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