That, experts and journalists said in Istanbul this week, has locked in motion a vicious circle of two societies communicating through the narrow prism of news medias largely controlled by their respective governments.
Without a free press, they said, minds and viewpoints remain captive.
The three-day conference, sponsored by the Global Political Trends Center, or GPOT, and the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, was unusual, if not unique, for bringing together reporters and editors from three countries: Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
These journalists discussed news coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from three perspectives and presented results from a news-monitoring period earlier this year.
“We keep holding these kinds of meetings in Turkey due to difficulties in Yerevan and Baku,” said Boris Navasardian, the president of the Yerevan Press Club, a nonprofit journalist organization in Armenia.
“The coverage of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict as it is currently done is not sustainable,” he told the conference Monday. “The manipulation and psychological strain it puts not only on conflict resolution but also on society and the development of society are of concern.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were respectively ranked 111th and 146th out of 175 countries last year in the Reporters Without Borders freedom of the press index, have gained international notoriety for censoring and harassing journalists and bloggers.
Journalists from both countries said that media censorship is rampant and that the press lacks a plurality of viewpoints, something that allows a limited number of voices to dominate the public discourse and leaves public opinion in a rigid and inflexible state.
The conclusions reached by participants indicated that public opinion in both countries, as well as in Turkey, creates a vicious cycle for authorities in countries involved in the Karabakh conflict.
A flashpoint of the Caucasus, the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh is a constituent part of Azerbaijan that has been occupied by Armenia since the end of 1994. While internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, the enclave has declared itself an independent republic and is administered as a de facto part of Armenia.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994 and enabled Armenia’s subsequent occupation of the region, led to the deaths of more than 30,000 people and created nearly 1 million refugees, who mostly remain in temporary settlement camps and facilities in Azerbaijan.
Years of negotiations involving the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE’s, Minsk group, including representatives from Russia, the United States and Europe, have failed to resolve the enclave’s status or enable the return of refugees.
At the Istanbul media event, both Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists grumbled about their respective governments’ interference in media organizations, saying news reporting in the two countries, particularly on the Karabakh conflict, relies on information provided by authorities.
“Ninety-five percent of the media is controlled by the government authorities in Azerbaijan,” Gulu Maharramli, a television journalist and a professor at Azerbaijan’s Hazar University, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Monday.
Arif Aliyev, the chair of Yeni Nesil (New Generation), Azerbaijan’s journalists’ union, agreed with Maharramli and bemoaned the lack of diversity in the Azerbaijani media, which he said has a significant influence on public opinion.
“The opposition hasn’t had airtime for the last two years,” Aliyev said, pointing out that 80 percent of the population relies on broadcast media. The same is true for print media, he added.
Like her Azerbaijani colleagues, Elina Poghosbekian, the editor of the Yerevan Press Club newsletter and the head of its press monitoring team, said media, particularly television, is fully controlled by the government in Armenia as well. “There will be no plurality of opinion and no opposition experts on televisions,” she said. “Broadcasters exercise self-censorship and keep ‘on-air’ blacklists.”
The blogosphere has more information, but not necessarily quality information, she said. “Armenian authorities do not yet know how to manage the Internet.”
Findings from an annual public-opinion poll conducted between 2006 and 2010 in Azerbaijan revealed that the Karabakh issue was the number-one issue of concern, and that Armenian-Azerbaijani relations were a priority in the media. “The government compensates for the lack of coverage on domestic social issues by focusing on the Karabakh conflict situation,” said Rasim Musabekov, the Baku-based political analyst who presented the report’s findings.
The report also indicated that 40 to 50 percent of the population expects the “no peace, no war” status quo in the longstanding impasse to continue. Only 30 percent of respondents are ready for a compromise, with just 16 percent approving some form of autonomy for Karabakh.
No alternative voice
Journalists, though, are also to blame for the lack of plurality in reporting, according to Poghosbekian. “The main problem in post-Soviet countries is the lack of professional attitudes and the lack of interest in looking for alternative opinions,” she said, noting that the last public-opinion survey about Armenian-Azerbaijani relations was published in 2002 or 2003 and very little has changed since then.
She said domestic policy is manipulated and little information is available about the negotiations on the Karabakh peace process.
Poghosbekian said the Armenian government gives out sparse information and rarely publishes official documents. “Sometimes we have to use Azeri sources,” she said.
“You cannot bring democratic peace if negotiations are kept secret and the opposition is undermined as unpatriotic,” Poghosbekian said, adding that peace negotiations were portrayed in the Armenian media as a danger to Armenian national identity.
“State-controlled media broadcasts pre-formed opinions as news, which are to blame for the public’s rigid opinion. Now the politicians themselves are bound by the opinions they formed in the first place,” Musabekov said. “The authorities cite public opinion as a justification for their policies, but it is the media they control that shapes it.”
Reminding that media should present different viewpoints, Musabekov said even sports or international music events, such as the Eurovision song contest, are presented in a political manner.
“In Azerbaijan, the media is a tool of information warfare. Removing the war component from the backdrop would give the process a positive impetus. If it stops being a zero-sum game, we can make positive steps,” he said.
Sarcastically noting that opinion surveys in both countries indicate that everybody wants the status quo, Ruben Margarian, the editor-in-chief of the Armenian daily Yerkir, said: “We [journalists] will be the Joan of Arcs that nobody wants.”
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