Gayane Torosyan and Eric Schwartz
Gayane Torosyan is assistant professor at the Department of Communication Arts at State University of New York College at Oneonta, New York and a Senior Fellow at Policy Forum Armenia. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of broadcast and intercultural journalism. Eric Schwartz is a lecturer at Appalachian State University. Recently, he served as Country Director for the International Center for Journalists in Azerbaijan.
Using a propaganda model, this study explores media coverage in Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the war around Nagorno-Karabakh and the context of the recent diplomatic efforts between Turkey and Armenia. Based on interviews with media workers in both former republics, the conclusion is that the coverage reflects the government policies in both cases. Even nominally independent media are influenced by government positions on the issue.
Because the Azerbaijan government feared rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, coverage of the negotiations between the two countries was described in exceptionally harsh terms in the Azerbaijani media. In Armenia, the perspective was understandably different. In this case, attempts to link the Turkish negotiations with a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh were denounced. The negative public opinion was one of the probable obstacles to rapprochement.
In both cases, the influence of the government on media it owned or controlled was pervasive. Despite this, because Armenia has a greater degree of media pluralism largely due to the existing opposition to the government’s policy, the breadth of debate on the issue within the media was greater in Armenia.
The focus of this study is to compare the positions of media in Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the issue of Armenian-Turkish negotiations in the context of the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan and Ankara went through a process of rapprochement that changed the public discourse around the issue quite dramatically (Iskandaryan 2009).
In September 2008, Armenian President Serge Sarksyan invited Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul to watch a soccer match between the two countries’ teams in Yerevan. This symbolic gesture initiated a period of ‘soccer diplomacy’ complete with the announcement of a road map to peace and the signing of two Armenian-Turkish protocols in October 2009. Largely because the Armenian public was initially uninformed about the use of Nagorno-Karabakh as leverage during these negotiations, domestic attitudes towards rapprochement underwent a complete transformation (Iskandaryan 2009).
Using Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (1988), this study sheds light on the reasons and mechanism of ‘filtering’ news content in Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the Armenian-Turkish negotiations in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The propaganda model
Propaganda is organized mass communication, derived from a hidden agenda to mold belief and action by manipulating mechanisms to circumvent individual reasoning and rational choice (Koppang 2009).
While serving as a system for sharing messages and symbols with the general public, the mass media not only inform and entertain, but also create and communicate values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that integrate them with the larger society (Herman & Chomsky 1988). In societies where the power belongs to a state bureaucracy and the media are controlled by commercial interests and even censorship, the media are known to be serving the interest of the elite.
Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model explains how power turns into a set of filters that influence the selection of stories that are fit to print, the marginalization of descending views, and the transmission of messages that benefit the government and major private interests (p.2). The filtering of news takes place on five levels that in Herman and Chomsky’s model include ownership and advertising, but in the case of newly emerging media systems mostly reside in the areas of government influence, flak and dominant ideology.
The media and their sources are in a symbolic relationship where government agencies and major businesses are granted credibility based on their societal influence. While trying to meet daily deadlines and work with limited resources such as technology and personnel, news organizations accept the ‘raw material’ distributed by official agencies and their press services. Power comes to play through status and prestige that enhance the perceived credibility of such sources, and journalists are ready to trust information that flows in sufficient volumes on regular basis (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 18).
Because division of labor makes news work feasible, journalists assume that the bureaucrats are ‘authorized knowers’ in the society: ‘This amounts to a moral division of labor: officials have and give the facts; reporters merely get them’ (Fishman 1980).
Flak is another filter that operates through negative responses to media work through various channels. The power relationship in the formula of blame is often tilted in favor of the government or large businesses, which operate directly and indirectly through verbal complaint, threats of retaliation, and influencing constituencies such as stockholders and employees (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 26.)
In Herman and Chomsky’s U.S.-based model the filter of political antagonism is exemplified by anticommunism as dominant ideology, but in many newly independent, post-colonial nations it takes the form of hating the ‘other’ (Said 1998). In a videotaped and widely distributed lecture that was originally delivered at the University of Massachusetts, Said argues against political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s theory that people’s cultural and religious identities are the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. The Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic conflict is often interpreted as a religious one by Western analysts and news workers who are used to operating in a dichotomized world of antagonized groups. The interview data of the present study carries traces of antagonistic ideology from both sides.
Based on ‘mirror’ interviews with media workers in Armenia and Azerbaijan, this study follows the process of ‘filtering’ and evaluates the status of media freedom and the possibility of objective coverage of conflict resolution efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s closest ally Turkey. Within the theoretical framework of the propaganda model, only some of those filters are significantly detectable in Armenian and Azerbaijani media. The data gathered for this study yields findings that evolve around the concepts of objectivity, government influence, flak, and antagonism as national ideology.
Forming the conceptual basis of this study is a set of key issues informed by Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, among other sources: objectivity, government influence, flak, and antagonistic ideology. To some extent, these issues overlap and hence are not mutually exclusive. The issues help formulate several broadly conceived research questions: What are the similarities and differences between Armenian and Azerbaijani media portrayals of the rapprochement efforts between Armenia and Turkey? What are some of the key factors influencing journalistic attitudes towards conflict and attempted resolution? These questions, in turn, suggest a number of more specific issues for consideration:
- How objective is the journalistic coverage of the conflict in each respective country?
- What are the consequences of attempted objectivity in journalism in the context of the current conflict?
- What is the role of the respective countries’ governments in shaping the media coverage of the topic?
- What are the public expectations from journalists on the matter of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the recent talks between Armenia and Turkey?
The answers to these questions were sought through a field study that relied on interviews of Armenian and Azerbaijani media workers and individuals involved with media development NGOs.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, western nations rushed to the ‘rescue’ of the media in the newly independent nations, using funds from various agencies like USIA and USAID, which saw their new, post-Cold War role in promoting principles of democracy and free-market economy (Torosyan & Starck 2006). The assumption that installing capitalistic principles of governance into the sphere of media can automatically lead to democratic changes in those media and eventually in the rest of society is highly problematic (Golding 1999).
The government of Armenia has been trying to end censorship and oppression of journalists, but the country is still suffering from ongoing attacks on opposition supporters and human rights activists. In the 2004 Freedom House survey, Armenia shared places 135 to 139 on the list of 193 countries evaluated for media independence. Threats on media freedom still exist, and many physical attacks on journalists have been
reported to the Committee to Protect Journalists (Human Rights in Armenia 2005).
In an op-ed piece published in the New York Times, David Hoffman (2001) wrote that freedom of the press and electronic media remains threatened in many former Soviet and East Bloc countries and needs protection. A 2001 study by Laura Baghdasaryan of theArmenian Association of Investigative Journalists showed that only about one-third of the surveyed journalists believed they worked for independent media organizations. Almost half of them considered their media organizations ‘partially independent’, referring to financial problems and political pressures. Some 42 per cent of the surveyed journalists said there were no independent media organizations in the country, with almost 22 percent believing in the opposite and the rest of the respondents remaining undecided (Baghdasaryan 2001).
Corruption and protectionism are also mentioned as existing problems among media (Yerevan Press Club Newsletter 2005). Sociologist Armen Sarkisyan (2002) examined the application of the ‘golden rule of journalism’ as the need to separate opinion and commentary from facts, and the views of journalists from expert analysis. His study found that the rule was often violated by Armenian journalists both unintentionally, due to a lack of professionalism, or intentionally, to create public resonance or to manipulate public opinion (Torosyan & Starck 2006).
The mass media in the Azerbaijan developed when the republic was part of the Soviet Union and so the media developed along Soviet lines. Rather than objectivity, the media focused on transmitting the information deemed to be essential by the Communist Party. As the policy of glasnost was implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Politburo, the effects began to be felt within Azerbaijan, albeit more gradually than in Russian metropolitan areas like Leningrad and Moscow.
One of the first tests of how the media would respond to new freedoms was the outbreak of violence between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, both within and without the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the importance of this topic to its audience, the media in Azerbaijan provided little news about the violence and the flow of refugees caused by the violence. Because little or no local reporting occurred, the public in both Armenia and Azerbaijan perceived that the Moscow-based media was supporting the enemy. Eventually, ‘samizdat’ press developed in Armenia and Azerbaijan, specifically created to provide information about the brewing conflict. To address the dearth of information in Azerbaijan, in the summer of 1989 the Committee for People’s Aid to Karabakh founded Azerbaydzhan, the first independent newspaper in the country. At about the same time, television programs in the country began discussing the issue (Grigoryan & Rzayev 2005).
Censorship in the USSR was formally abolished in the autumn of 1989, and before long independent newspapers in Azerbaijan were founded to take advantage of the new press freedom. These publications sharply rejected Soviet dogma, but did not necessarily aspire to maintain journalistic objectivity. These publications frequently were established to advance certain political objectives. Azadliq, for example, was the party organ of the Popular Front, one of the most powerful opposition groups during this time. When Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a large number of independent newspapers were founded, some of which exist to this day. Ayna, Zerkalo, Seher, and 7 Gün continue to publish in Azerbaijan, although the independence of the newspapers has been tightly circumscribed. The new political parties that arose in this period each had party newspapers to publicize their programs, leading to the establishment of Yeni Musavat, Istiqlal, and Millet. The independent news agency Turan also was founded during this time. Cinqiz Mustafayev, a journalist who provided explosive coverage of the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, established 215 KL, the first independent television station (Grigoryan & Rzayev 2005).
The war brewing in Nagorno-Karabakh provided the fledgling media with a raison d’être; it may also have sowed the seeds of media repression. The war was a key factor in the attempted coup that unseated Abülfaz Elchibay. When Heydar Aliyev succeeded Elchibay, he used the war as an excuse for the repressive measures imposed on the media. When the national emergency was lifted in September 1993, the news media censorship was eased, and in November that year the legislature refused to approve a measure proposed by Aliyev that would restrict media in order to ensure national unity. Nonetheless, the government found effective means of silencing independent media. For example, the government began restricting the supply of printing material to independent publishers. By early 1994, the price increases had resulted in a drop of more than 50 percent in newspaper and magazine subscriptions. In any case, Azerbaijanis continued to favor television as a news source, and the government controlled the only national channel (Library of Congress 1994).
Not surprisingly, the ownership of the media in this case had a profound effect. In a content analysis of 126 articles in the period following the 1993 presidential election, a period roiled by street protests, the coverage provided by the state-run newspapers was considerably more biased than that given by independent newspapers. During the protest rallies, one person was killed and police arrested more than 625 people, including at least 85 officials from opposition parties. “In contrast to the independent outlets where protestors tended to be worthy victims, the state owned media as a loudspeaker of the government tried to frame the protestors as rioters” (Khudiyev 2005, 25).
When Ilham Aliyev assumed the presidency, some Western observers expressed hope that the new president would take a more liberal approach than his father. After all, the younger Aliyev had traveled extensively in Europe. His reputation before taking power was that of a playboy. (In 1998, his father had ordered the closure of Baku’s casinos reportedly in part because of the Ilham’s fondness for gambling.) As became clear relatively quickly, however, Ilham’s lack of KGB experience did not mean that he was more of a democrat than his father. Since ascending to power, Ilham Aliyev’s regime has been marked by progressively repressive policies and actions. One of the most notable events occurred in 2005 when unknown assailants shot down journalist Elmar Huseinov in the lobby of his apartment building. While the crime remains officially unsolved, Huseinov clearly had incurred the anger of government officials for his journalism. Particularly galling to authorities was his investigation of allegations that Azerbaijani troops were themselves responsible for some of the casualties of one of the most infamous massacres of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Less than two years earlier, Huseinov had been imprisoned for his coverage of political protests following the election won by Ilham Aliyev (Walker 2005).
Television was already firmly under the control of the government during the regime of Heydar Aliyev, but under the younger Aliyev the government began to more actively try to repress or control dissemination of information over the Internet. In 2007, the government shut down the site www.susmayag.biz, which was launched in order to gather signatures of people protesting utility rate hikes (Abassov and Gahramanov 2007). In 2008, the BBC and Radio Liberty were forced from the airwaves within Azerbaijan. In the summer of 2009, two bloggers were arrested and convicted of hooliganism, prompting international condemnation (Drucker 2009).
Naturally, the current circumstances in Azerbaijan do not allow unfettered reporting or analysis in the local media. Nonetheless, this does not eliminate the media as a source of analysis by scholars in the fields of communication or political science. Two recent studies have examined the incidence of biased reporting in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The report by Yeni Nesil, an Azerbaijani journalist organization, and the Yerevan Press Club, found examples of stubborn clichés and slurs that mar the reporting in both Armenia and Azerbaijan (Yeni Nesil/Yerevan Press Club, 2010). The report, which monitored 16 media in Azerbaijan and Armenia during three months in 2008-2009, focused in part on the effect of the Turkey-Armenia protocols, signed Oct. 10, 2009. The monitoring found examples of repeated use of stereotypes, slurs, and outright falsehoods in the Azerbaijani coverage of Armenia. Much of this coverage concerned the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The report also notes a near mirror image in the situation in Armenia, where the perspective is naturally quite different the media is also prone to perpetrate ethnic slurs and apt to dispense inaccuracies if not outright falsehoods.
‘The last joint research comes to prove again the fact that the whole complex of Armenian- Azerbaijani relations, built mostly on the basis of Karabagh issue, is one of the most broadly covered subjects in the media of both countries, if not the top one. Still, the journalists very rarely acknowledge their responsibility in the enhancement of existing alienations and, mildly put, mutual hostility between the people of the two counties. Or, while acknowledging it, they continue supporting and often encouraging politicians, academicians, public figures, providing them with the newspaper space and airtime to increase the confrontation. They play a significant role in keeping alive the old stereotypes and stimulating the new ones, they distort the reality, complicated as it is, thus impeding the mutual understanding and establishment of trust between the neighbor, rendering the advancement on the way of piece impossible. The research shows the toolbox of propaganda techniques and lexical means that media use, but also, as we hope, it will help to answer the question of “how the situation can be changed?” ((Yeni Nesil/Yerevan Press Club 2010, 5).
Content analysis is the primary research method used in the joint report completed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani press clubs. In contrast, the 2008 report by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers uses a focus group approach to augment data from existing sources. The report looked at media bias in international news coverage, particularly as it relates to coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Among its more interesting findings are indications that Armenians worry that more unbiased reporting may threaten national security. On the Azerbaijani side, the report found concerns that young Azerbaijanis may be forgetting about the conflict that was officially quieted by a truce in May 1994. Instead, the Azerbaijanis in the focus groups expressed the opinion that the media should ‘incite hatred and the need for retribution against Armenians’ (Caucasus Research Resource Centers 2008, 3).
Because of the overwhelming influence of the governments in both countries on the press, the media can be analyzed as an indication of the priorities set by the central governments. The media can also be seen as a reflection of the ethnic tensions that still surround the primary foreign policy problem facing Azerbaijan – the unsettled conflict over the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. While a fragile cease-fire was signed in 1994, small-scale skirmishes continue to occur along the border. Most recently two Azerbaijani and three Armenian soldiers were killed in a skirmish (Radio Free Europe 2010), adding to more than twenty thousand casualties and almost a million and a half refugees victimized by the conflict (Cornell 1999). An estimated 19-30 casualties were reported each year following the ceasefire (Dementieva 2010).
In contrast to Armenia, where the local media bias essentially favored a negotiated agreement between Turkey by omitting from coverage the need to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the media in Azerbaijan clearly placed the necessity of settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem front and center. While the nuances of coverage varied in Azerbaijan, depending on the perspective of the writers, journalists uniformly portrayed the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as an essential part to any agreement between Armenia and Turkey. The Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists interviewed for this article are a diverse group, writing for both local and international audiences. In the media tacitly or openly controlled by the central government and in media that is relatively independent, this same assumption was consistently held: the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh could not be excluded from any settlement between Turkey and Armenia.
Given the timing and the nature of the study, the method selected for this effort is qualitative and synchronic comparative analysis of media in two respective countries. The two authors of this study conducted simultaneous interviews in August and September of 2010 with a total of nine media workers. The interview questions evolved around the research questions regarding objectivity and its repercussions, government influence, and public expectation, with additional information filled in through follow-up questions when necessary.
Findings and analysis
Responses from Armenian media workers
Boris Navasardyan, President of the Yerevan Press Club, characterized the coverage of the Armenian-Turkish diplomatic efforts during the period beginning with ‘soccer diplomacy’ until the signing of the Zurich protocols as relatively free and wide, especially considering ‘ the absence in Armenian media of diversity in views on various problems in general.’ All things considered, Navasardyan said the media were creating an ‘objective enough picture.’ However, he said the number of individual publications that would qualify as ‘objective’ was rather small.
Some of the language that Navasardyan cited as most frequently use in media includes ‘militaristic,’ ‘non-constructive,’ ‘aggressive,’ and ‘enemy’ used as an adjective.
According to this source, the authorities have a strong influence on the coverage of this theme in media that they control, which includes most television channels, but only a minority of print publications.
In terms of ‘flak,’ Navasardyan said it mostly depends on the image and reputation of the journalist and their media organization. If they enjoy the trust of the audience, which is rare, they can afford sincere, independent, unrestricted expression. However, Navasardyan said ‘even in this case we can mostly speak of politeness, ethics, professionalism, but not a positive attitude, because it is hardly ever found.’ If journalists or media outlets have little or no credibility, their neutral or attitude towards Azerbaijan may become a reason for increased skepticism by the audience. Overall, Navasardyan concluded that the audience ‘definitely wants to know more, and in this regard expects more professional, competent work from journalists.’
Khachik Danielyan, General Manager of the independent ALT-TV station in Armavir, Armenia, said he covers the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement efforts regularly, often promoting tolerance in programs sponsorship by international agencies such as the U.S. embassy. Danielyan stated that the government is often the only source of information on certain topics, and it controls the news flow as it finds suitable. For example, he argued that if proper coverage had been allowed during the signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Zurich, the Turkish foreign minister would have explained that the pre-condition was the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. But because it was kept secret from the public, Danielyan says the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh became a serious obstacle against the emerging Turkish-Armenian relations.
Elaborating further on flak and resulting self-censorship, Danielyan acknowledged: ‘You realize how dangerous it is to be lead by your personal opinion, which would be seen in the context of national security. That is why we prefer the official position.’
While noting that objective reporting would be viewed as pro-Turkish or pro-Azerbaijani, Danielyan said he avoids using negative language, especially adjectives: ‘They are my personal enemies,’ he said.
In Danielyan’s view, the influence of authorities is mostly expressed as advice or persuasion. He said the journalists have a choice to accept or reject the advice ‘from above,’ and in any case, they have their own position. As for pressure from advertisers and private sponsors, he said his station has ‘absolutely no sponsors, never had, and do not want any.’
Commenting on the public’s expectations, Danielyan noted that ‘a significant part of the population is unaware of what is happening in reality, so what expectations they can have?’ Independent media outlets like ALT-TV are trying to fill the gap, he said, but the fact remains that the majority of the public believes that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the ethnic Armenians populating the enclave. ‘The public has an exceptional immunity to disappointment, and will be surprised if disappointment does not occur periodically. At least our station has no intention of contributing to the process of disappointment,’ concluded Danielyan.
The next respondent is Associated Press Correspondent in Armenia Avet Demuryan, who has been running the bureau since 1992. He said he has personally contributed a lot of news coverage on the topic of rapprochement attempts between Armenia and Turkey. The Associated Press provided a substantial amount of coverage, including materials from Yerevan and Istanbul, along with Ankara. Demuryan said he had no reliable means of comparing his work with the coverage of the same topic by other news outlets, but he thought the AP was doing no worse than Agence France Presse, Reuters, Deutsche Welle and other leading world news agencies.
Speaking from the position of exhaustive knowledge on the topic, Demuryan makes the following observation: ‘We cannot talk about the impact of the Karabakh conflict on the negotiations. There are no negotiations per se. Turkey, which during the signing of the protocols undertook the responsibility of refusing preconditions, was unable to do so, de facto breaking its own promise. Now, as a precondition to the ratification of protocols in the parliament and the beginning of negotiations with the Armenian side, they suggest that the Armenians make compromises in the process of talks, to free some of the regions controlled by the Karabakh, and then only they will be ready to open the borders and establish diplomatic relations. Naturally, nobody in Armenia believes them.’
Overall, Demuryan said the international media coverage of the actual situation with the signing of the protocols, the mutual visits of the presidents of Armenia and Turkey, with small exceptions, can be considered objective. The problem is that there is practically no information on the process of negotiations, which was taking place under conditions of strictest secrecy. However, under current political circumstances, Demuryan said much of the time ‘objectivity in reporting is impossible.’
Demuryan also claimed that the leadership of Armenia has no influence on the coverage of the Associated Press. ‘I have not heard of any pressure regarding the given topic over the local media either,’ he said. ‘As for the media in Turkey and Azerbaijan, where Armeniophobia is flourishing, I think those media and individual journalists would pay a price. Pressure can be applied in many different forms, including indirectly. There is no doubt about it. I think that Turkish journalists and media who objectively reflect reality in this or that form, are demonstrating civic courage. As for Azerbaijani journalists who do the same, their fates are widely known.’
Aghasi Yenokyan is the Yerevan Bureau Chief or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A former political analyst, Yenokyan says his service is ‘trying to cover all important events and aspects of Armenian-Turkish talks’ through roundtable discussions, expert analysis, and news reports. He noted that RFE/RL had provided direct broadcasts from Geneva, when protocols were signed, and sent correspondents to Turkey twice to cover various aspects of this process. Yenokyan claims that the news coverage on the topic by Armenian media has been largely one-sided and did not represent the positions of Turkey and Azerbaijan adequately enough. He noted that his news organization is trying to steer clear from negative language while writing about Armenia’s political adversaries.
Yenokyan claimed that the government of Armenia has a very strong influence on most media outlets, including television stations, Internet sites, some newspapers and radio stations. He observed that although he personally does not any fear of retribution or ‘flak,’ ‘some other journalists do,’ which potentially leads to self-censorship. Commenting on public expectations from media, Yenokyan mentioned that audiences want ‘more news, more objective news, wants to see real positions and expectations of all parties.’
Shushan Doydoyan, president of the Center for Information Freedom in Yerevan, Armenia, said she is afraid Armenians themselves do not fully understand the meaning of the phrase ‘pro-Armenian.’ Doydoyan explained that nationalistic ambitions can harm Armenia’s long-term global interests: ‘Wouldn’t it be best for Armenia to open the border with Turkey and thus reduce the influence of Russia, leading to economic strengthening, instead of pushing the issue of recognizing the Genocide to the forefront and making it a pre-condition for building Armenian-Turkish relations? I think it is about time to reexamine the foundations of our foreign policy and reevaluate our course of action.’
Doydoyan observed that the media publications are full of various negative labels while addressing the ‘other side,’ which does not contribute to the resolution of the problem. ‘The media publications are full of emotional wording instead of in-depth analysis,’ she said.
Doydoyan also said the job of a reporter is to avoid personal opinion, ideology, sympathy and antipathy in his or her publications. ‘I try not to have a political position,’ she says. However, she says the audience is not ready for media neutrality: ‘The public is anticipating the media to generate hate and anger towards the ‘enemy,’ and that is what the reporters do. This is precisely the result of the media’s long-term low-quality, unprofessional coverage, their lack of profound knowledge on key foreign policy issues, their neglect and underestimation of national interests. I want to emphasize again that in Armenian reality, the importance of this issue for our people and our nation is distorted.’
Responses from Azerbaijani media workers
In many regards, the opinions of the Azerbaijani journalists echoed those of their Armenian colleagues. Both groups acknowledged the difficulty in presenting unbiased reporting on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both groups acknowledged that expectations from the public and pressure from the central government incline most journalists to some degree of self-censorship. The opinion of Elhan Shahinoglu, director of the Atlas Research Center, which monitors media in Azerbaijan, was fairly typical of the Azerbaijani journalists and media specialists interviewed.
‘The negotiations between Turkey and Armenia broke down on the question of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and could not move forward without a solution. This conflict has direct influence between Armenia and Turkey. While Armenia is in the first stage still holding the nearby territories around Nagorno-Karabakh that she occupies, Turkey does not open the borders with Armenia and does not establish diplomatic relations with these countries,’ said Shahinoglu.
Shahin Rzayev, country director in Azerbaijan of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh could not be moved off the negotiating table, despite the best efforts of the Armenians.
‘Despite all the attempts of the Armenian side to remove the Karabakh conflict from the scope of the Armenian-Turkish negotiations, obviously they were not successful. The Karabakh problem was and still is one of the most important unsolved problems. It will be impossible to speak of a long lasting-and stable peace in the region without solving this problem,’ he said.
Azerbaijani media observers and journalists agreed that the coverage of the issue in general tended to be slanted but to a large extent this was unavoidable. That said, the media observers could discern differences and nuances in the coverage of the issue. For example, Emin Huseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, said relatively unbiased coverage of international events could be obtained through news services such as the Turan Information Agency, a news bureau headquartered in Baku. Agencies such as this carry information about reports conducted by international monitoring groups such as the Red Cross, which provide relatively unbiased information about conflict areas such as Nagorno-Karabakh. The media sources close to the authorities, however, are quite unreliable, he said.
Huseynov pointed out that there are areas of media coverage where some tacit criticism of the authorities can occur. For example, there has been coverage of the problem of hazing within the Azerbaijani armed forces, coverage which could be perceived as an indirect criticism of the military authorities.
Newspaper articles about this subject, however, have to be put into context, he said. As a whole, the role of newspapers in informing the public and forming public opinion is quite small. The vast majority of the public gets its information from television, and television is tightly controlled either overtly or tacitly by the government. The circulation of Azadliq, for example, one of the most respected opposition newspapers, numbers roughly 5,000 readers, in a country of roughly 9 million inhabitants. The bias displayed by television news media is uniformly pro-government, even in the case of news outlets such as the nominally independent station ANS and the public television station ITV, noted Huseynov.
The subject of the negotiations between Turkey and Armenia was closely followed by all media outlets in Azerbaijan, said Shahin Abbasov, deputy chief-of-Party of IREX Media Support Project in Azerbaijan and a correspondent of Eurasianet in Azerbaijan.
‘There were many media articles, news reports, analysis and interviews with experts and officials on the issue. When the talks just begun and when the Protocols were signed in Switzerland, this issue was number one in Azerbaijani media,’ said Abbasov.
Abbasov said he shared the opinion of most commentators and journalists in the Azerbaijani media: the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is inseparable from any negotiations between Turkey and Armenia. While the assumption of this link was consistent across the Azerbaijani media, this aspect did not preclude diversity in the coverage of the issue.
‘There were wide range of opinions and comments on this issue. One could find all the angles and opinions concerning this process while monitoring Azerbaijani media outlets,’ he said. ‘However, there was a bias as well while media covered the issue from Azerbaijan’s point of view more.’
Abbasov observed that the television news coverage of issues is completely synonymous with government positions. Even opposition and independent news outlets may not be as much affected, but nonetheless the government influences coverage with the commentary and statements covered and broadcast by news outlets.
Shaxinoglu agreed that in the current political climate in Azerbaijan, the dominant media position in any coverage of negotiations would naturally stress the importance of Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
‘You need to look at these things realistically. No one from the Azerbaijan mass media or the journalists talks neutral or positive relations toward Armenia, if that sort of question is possible. So the Azerbaijani territory is located under the occupation of Armenia until the solution to the NK conflict, other types of relations toward the neighboring country are impossible,’ he said.
That said, however, the Azerbaijani journalists and media analysts interviewed said the language generally used even in such biased accounts of negotiations and relations with Armenia steers clear of most derogatory terms. Huseynov said slurs such as calling Armenians ‘cockroaches’ can be found, but not in any respected Azerbaijani media. Abassov said he himself uses terms such ‘unfair position, unwillingness for compromises, unwillingness to liberate occupied territories’ in referring to the Armenians. He noted, however, that he also uses such terms in referring to the Azerbaijani government. Rzayev said he and his colleagues are bound by the standards of the organization for which they work. Aside from any other restriction, this fact restricts the language used in coverage of the issue. When he wrote for the local press, Rzayev said, he used terms such as ‘aggressor’ ‘and ‘occupier’ to refer to the Armenians.
Abbasov said the influence of the government on the coverage of the negotiations is pervasive but not absolute. The television news coverage of issues is acknowledged to nearly completely synonymous with government positions, he said. Even opposition and independent news outlets may not be as much affected, but nonetheless the government influences coverage with the commentary and statements covered and broadcast by news outlets, he said.
Another source of pressure on journalists are the internalized expectations from the media consumers, the Azerbaijani journalists acknowledged. Media consumers in Azerbaijan have their own biases regarding Armenia, and journalists disregard these biases at their own peril.
‘Yes, the society has a position concerning Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And indeed it is general consensus among Azerbaijani public on this issue. Thus, it expects that journalists would cover the conflict in terms that reflects Azerbaijan’s position and public’s opinion on the issue,’ said Abbasov.
As Rzayev put it, the label of ‘traitor’ is sometimes applied to a journalist who does not show sufficient hostility toward the Armenians. Rzayev has first-hand experience with the power of audience expectations. The nominally-independent television station ANS depicted an interview he did with the president of Armenia as ‘friendly,’ earning him the animosity of both colleagues and audience.
‘My reputation in the eyes of some viewers suffered, but in the eyes of others, on the other hand, it grew,’ he said.
Shahinoglu said the idea of objective coverage in Azerbaijan of any subject concerning Armenia simply is not possible now.
‘You need to look at these things realistically. No one from the Azerbaijan mass media or the journalists talks neutral or positive relations toward Armenia, if that sort of question is possible. The Azerbaijani territory is located under the occupation of Armenia until the solution to the NK conflict, so other types of relations toward the neighboring country are impossible,’ he said.
These expectations of the media audience, however, are hardly unique to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Abassov pointed out.
‘I think that the problem of biased coverage of the conflicts exists in every country (which is involved into any conflict). Israeli media covers the conflict with Palestinians in biased way. Palestinian media is also biased against Israel. Russian media was generally very anti-Georgian during August 2008 war. The same is about Georgian media coverage of the war. Thus it is naïve to expect unbiased coverage of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement by Azerbaijani media and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by Azerbaijani and Armenian media,’ he said.
This does not mean, however, that journalists do not privately express ambivalence about the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. As noted above, the issue of military corruption and incompetence can even be broached occasionally in the media. Also, some wonder whether how Azerbaijan’s current authoritarian government can function as a negotiating partner with Armenia. Huseynov, who has been imprisoned by the government for his reporting, said the lack of democracy in Azerbaijan complicates its negotiations with Armenia. Human rights cannot be guaranteed for the Azerbaijani population within Azerbaijan, he said, so Armenians are understandably concerned about how they will be treated if the Nagorno-Karabakh territory is returned to Azerbaijan.
While stronger democratic institutions within Azerbaijan might facilitate the negotiation process, signs indicate increasingly weak democratic institutions in Azerbaijan, he said. Cooperation with Armenian NGOs has become extremely difficult in recently, he added. This type of cooperation could make a peaceful solution more feasible, yet allowing such independent action from the civil society organizations runs counter to current government policy.
In this paper we have tried to provide a current assessment of how media coverage in two feuding countries affects international negotiations. The negotiations in this case are between Armenia and Turkey, but Armenia’s relations with Azerbaijan proved to be impossible to keep off the table. Analysis of the coverage shows similarities and differences between the two media systems. On one hand, both countries have media that are effectively dominated by the central government. Even the few independent media that exist are affected by the government’s positions on international affairs. Because of government pressure and expectations from the public, journalists in both countries report a high degree of self-censorship, especially on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. In both cases, deviation from the hard-line can lead to charges of insufficient patriotism.
In the case of the negotiations with Turkey, however, the Armenian media differed from their counterparts in Azerbaijan in their presentation of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. While the Azerbaijani media was unified in depicting the impossibility of negotiations without consideration of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, the Armenian press tacitly allowed for this possibility. When it became clear that some compromise on Nagorno-Karabakh would be required, consumers of the Armenian media accused media figures of presenting an incomplete picture of the negotiations.
In the same way that divisions within the a nation’s elite can lead to greater diversity of national policy, the divisions within Armenian’s elite led to a marginally greater diversity of content than in Azerbaijan, where the government and opposition both rejected the idea of normal Turkish-Armenian relations without addressing the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. The wishful thinking of the Armenian media, however, could not change the diplomatic realities surrounding the Turkish-Armenian talks, and the negotiations collapsed over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, as had been predicted by the Azerbaijani media.
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