Conflict in the early Nineties left such a legacy of mistrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that many people on either side of the divide now know very little about each other.
To help build bridges and correct a few misunderstandings, IWPR has been running a unique collaborative project called Neighbours, to create a common space for objective, prejudice-free reporting across the divide created by the Nagorny Karabakh conflict.
“Neighbours is a cooperative platform for Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists which serves as a model to other young professionals who want to be agents of change towards progress and peace in this turbulent region,” IWPR Caucasus Regional Director Beka Bajelidze said.
“I met Azerbaijanis in the flesh for the first time in my life, and now I can say – yes, I do know my neighbours”
Armenian journalist Parandzem Hovhannissyan
The basic principle, he explained, is “positive reciprocal behaviour towards one’s neighbour”, designed to “challenge the continuing prejudices and stereotypes built up over the last 20 years as a legacy of the ongoing dispute over Nagorny Karabakh”.
The project places particular emphasis on reaching out to young reporters from Azerbaijan and Armenia – to date, 30 have received IWPR training in areas including new media, the standards of international journalism, conflict-sensitive reporting, human rights and justice.
"When IWPR invited me to be a trainer at a meeting between Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists in Tbilisi, I jumped at the chance,” journalist and new media expert Onnik Krikorian, from Armenia, said. “Not least that was because… media in both countries still fail to report on the other side objectively and accurately. Moreover, they often reinforce, and sometimes even create, negative stereotypes which do little to build understanding of the conflict between the two countries, or to promote conflict transformation and resolution.”
Participating journalists take part in joint reporting missions to Georgia, a country where both Azerbaijanis and Armenians feel comfortable, attend training workshops, and work together on articles which are then published in special supplements in newspapers in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Suren Musayelyan, managing editor of ArmeniaNow.com, said that taking part was a great experience for one of his novice reporters, Gohar Abrahamyan.
“The visit to Georgia must surely have broadened the young reporter’s horizons… she had a rare opportunity to communicate with her counterparts from Azerbaijan in an environment that allowed of impartial, unimpeded dialogue and cultural exchange. That kind of experience early on helps journalists develop a broader world outlook that’s certainly essential to a successful career in journalism.”
There have been seven of these supplements to date, containing a total of 70 individual articles and published in leading papers in both countries – Alma and Aina in Azerbaijan and 168 Hours Newspaper in Yerevan – and reaching an audience of at least 20,000 people.
“The Neighbours supplement has been like new blood for Azerbaijani journalism,” Arzu Abdullayeva, chair of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Azerbaijan. “It’s been a great idea to bring young Azerbaijanis together with their Armenian colleagues to cover common apolitical themes. I would like participants in this project to be able to visit one another’s countries in future, to see with their own eyes how their colleagues live.”
In all, 70 articles have been produced jointly by young Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists, on subjects ranging from the position of women, young people and minorities to the impact of new media in the region.
The response was massive – it is, after all, virtually unheard that a work of an Armenian to appear in the Azerbaijani press, and vice versa. Reaction ranged from outrage and insults to praise for the courage and tolerance displayed by the reporters on either side.
Armenia’s former human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunyan said, “I welcome publication of the supplement describing the problems facing ethnic minorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is critically important to provide balanced reporting…. Diversity creates a more tolerant society, and our country lacks tolerance in all areas.”
In Azerbaijan, Boyukaga Agayev, head of the South Caucasus Research Centre, made a similar point, describing the reports as “an alternative approach to covering the life in neighbouring Armenia”.
“Unfortunately, most media outlets still spread anti-Armenian propaganda, and many people have been influenced by what they say. This supplement might as well be called ‘A Different Armenia’, as it’s an attempt to provide readers with alternative forms of information and allow them to draw their own conclusions,” Agayev said.
Since 2008, participating journalists have gathered in the Georgian capital on seven times to attend practical workshops run by IWPR. They looked at issues such as the nature and impact of conflict, and the role of citizen reporting and online activism using new media.
“The biggest draw for me is meeting Armenian colleagues,” Nigar Musayeva, a reporter for the Trend news agency in Azerbaijan, said before going to one of these events. “It will be a unique chance for me to find out how people live on the other side of the conflict, and also to make professional contacts.”
Participants also took part in three reporting missions, once again on neutral ground in Georgia. The most recent, in mid-July, brought them into contact with that country’s Armenian minority in the Samtshe-Javakheti region, and with Azerbaijanis living in Kvemo Kartli. For a fuller report on that trip see Caucasus Journalists Offered Rare Chance to Meet .
Afterwards, Shalva Shubladze, director of the local Marneuli TV channel, said, “It’s great that IWPR has brought journalists from Armenia and Azerbaijan here so that they could see with their own eyes what’s going on and how people actually live. Very often, reporters who know nothing about local conditions engage in irresponsible reporting that only exacerbates the situation.”
Many participants have gone on to work with leading media like Aina in Azerbaijan, ArmeniaNow, the BBC and Radio Liberty.
They take with them an altered perception of what it means to live in the other country.
“Every time the journalists meet one another other, we observe how excited, curious and motivated they are to go beyond the well-embedded, simplistic, often hostile images created by the media in both countries,” Bajelidze said.
Ragif Raufoghlu, who works at Free Azerbaijan TV, had never met an Armenian, still less had a chance to discuss the Karabakh conflict with one, before attending an IWPR event.
“This kind of collaboration… could help end the information war between us, and help us write about each other objectively and without prejudice. I think all journalists in the Caucasus should work together,” he said.
Parandzem Hovhannissyan from Armenia went through the same experience, saying, “It was also very important to me, because I met Azerbaijanis in the flesh for the first time in my life, and now I can say – yes, I do know my neighbours.”
The Neighbours project is part of IWPR’s Building Bridges/Building Capacity in the South Caucasus Programme, which is focused on integrated training, reporting and outreach activities to support democracy-building and conflict-resolution throughout the South Caucasus. The programme has been funded by Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway; the latter support is ongoing. The July mission to Georgia and publication of articles produced as a result were co-funded by the US embassy in Armenia through their Democracy Commission Small Grants.