Who knew that a simple “Happy Birthday” song would cause an international headache for Jennifer Lopez? But it did. Saturday, Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow at an event hosted by the China National Petroleum Corp. By Sunday, the Human Rights Foundation was sharing this email online:
Jennifer Lopez Celebrates Turkmenistan’s Dictator; Sings for Human Rights Violator-in-Chief Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
AVAZA, TURKMENISTAN (June 30, 2013)—American pop singer Jennifer Lopez headlined yesterday’s 56th birthday celebration of the President of the Republic of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 2006. His family and friends exert complete control over politics, economics, and society, and his cult of personality is extreme.
“Lopez obviously has the right to earn a living performing for the dictator of her choice and his circle of cronies, but her actions utterly destroy the carefully-crafted message she has cultivated with her prior involvement with Amnesty International’s programs in Mexico aimed at curbing violence against women,” said Human Rights Foundation (HRF) president Thor Halvorssen. “What is the next stop on her tour, Syria? The dictator of Kazakhstan’s birthday is July 6, maybe she will also pay him a visit?” Halvorssen asked.
Freedom House ranks the Berdymukhamedov dictatorship as one of the nine “worst of the worst“; Transparency international ranks it as a bottom-seven country in their Corruption Perception Index; Reporters Without Borders classifies him as a “predator of press freedom” and ranks Turkmenistan as the world’s third-worst place for journalists, between Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea; HRF considers it one of the world’s most totalitarian regimes. Berdymukhamedov was re-elected with 97% of the vote in 2012. The vote was so obviously fraudulent that the OSCE declined to even send observers.
Lopez, whose management and back-up singers were enthusiastically tweeting their presence in Turkmenistan, are surely ignorant that social networks like Twitter and Facebook are banned, and the country’s only ISP is controlled by the regime. The government relies heavily on surveillance of telephone and electronic communications. Political opposition to the government is considered treason, and torture is widespread. Homosexuality is illegal.
Lopez’s performance for this government included a concert as well as a special “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” performance where she donned regional garb. HRF has previously publicized similar celebrity endorsements of dictators ranging from Hilary Swank’s disastrous celebration of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday to Julio Iglesias’s recent visit to Equatorial Guinea to perform in a production of the Obiang family that has ruled the African country for more than 40 years. According to sources inside her own production team, Lopez received a seven-figure payment for her presence routed through a Chinese corporation.
“It is astonishing, given the public humiliation endured by Hilary Swank just recently, that Lopez’s management and the singer herself would be so obtuse and insensitive to human rights concerns,” said Halvorssen. Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, Beyoncé and 50 Cent were disgraced after singing for Muammar Gaddafi’s family and earning millions of dollars for it. All of these performers were shamed into donating their performance fees for having entertained dictators.
HRF is a nonprofit nonpartisan organization that protects and promotes human rights globally, with an expertise in the Americas. We believe that all human beings are entitled to freedom of self-determination, freedom from tyranny, the rights to speak freely, to associate with those of like mind, and to leave and enter their countries. Individuals in a free society must be accorded equal treatment and due process under law, and must have the opportunity to participate in the governments of their countries; HRF’s ideals likewise find expression in the conviction that all human beings have the right to be free from arbitrary detainment or exile and from interference and coercion in matters of conscience. HRF does not support nor condone violence. HRF’s International Council includes former prisoners of conscience George Ayittey, Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Ramón J. Velásquez, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.
JLo’s camp went into damage control, sharing the following statement to the press:
Jennifer Lopez and several other artists were invited and performed at a private corporate event for the China National Petroleum Corporation that was presented to their local executives in Turkmenistan.
This was not a government sponsored event or political in nature. The event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human right issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.
The China National Petroleum Corporation made a last minute ‘birthday greeting’ request prior to Jennifer taking the stage. This was not stipulated in her contract but she graciously obliged the China National Petroleum Corporation request.
Not a good few days for Jenny. She might need better “vetters.”