Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeris Turn to Satellite TV in Propaganda Battle

Armenians wooed with TV news broadcasts from the enemy.
By Samira Hasanli
Azerbaijan is reaching out to Armenians with a new television station airing its views on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict in the Armenian language.



Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a stand-off over Karabakh, which has been ruled by Armenians free of Baku’s control since the end of the Soviet period, and ties between the two peoples are almost non-existent.



But ATV International, a state-run satellite television channel that went on the air in October, aims to change that. It also broadcasts in Farsi, English and Russian, but does not disguise its primary concern with Karabakh.



The 15-minute daily broadcast in Armenian goes out at 4 pm.



“The news broadcasts in Armenian are the most important for us. The team is working hard. Our aim is to give correct information about Azerbaijan to the Armenian public,” said Vagif Aydinoglu, director of the channel’s news programmes, adding that Armenian websites had reacted strongly to the broadcasts.



“At first, they gave us a hostile reception but then they began to notice that Armenian channels had fallen behind us in this sense, and they now say they would like to see Armenian television broadcasting in Azeri.”



His programmes are part of an increasingly sophisticated media exchange between the two neighbouring countries, with broadcasters beginning to move away from straight opposition towards more nuanced efforts.



Aydinoglu said the channel was planning to broaden its repertoire beyond just news, in order to appeal further to Armenian viewers.



“For example, at the moment we are preparing the broadcast of a documentary film about the Sumgait events of 1988,” he said, referring to riots that killed 32 residents of the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, most of them Armenians. “This film is prepared from archive documents and from the stories of the living witnesses of those tragic days.”



Mubariz Ahmedoglu, a political commentator, approved of the initiative, saying that since Nagorny Karabakh is internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, despite its Armenian-speaking population, it was right for the state to provide Armenian-language news.



“Armenians living in Nagorny Karabakh are citizens of Azerbaijan, and they have the right to watch and hear programmes in their native language,” she said.



“Maybe Azerbaijani nationalists won’t like this but there isn’t anything terrible for them here anyway. What’s bad about us providing Armenians with correct information in their own language?”



Ordinary Azeris did not agree with him, saying that spending money to provide information to Armenians was a disgrace. Musharraf Alizade, a 44-year-old teacher and a member of a charity supporting refugees from Karabakh, was opposed to it on principle.



“I think these broadcasts bring shame on our nation. For me personally, just the sound of these Armenian words disturbs me, no matter what their content. They should consider the feelings of refugees who lived through such hardship,” she said.



However, Ahmedoglu said the government should stick to its position of trying to reach out to the Armenians since it could help to end the frozen conflict.



“Because of this conflict, Armenia has ended up blockaded and has no chances of economic development. It cannot take part in the profitable projects taking place in the region. It has a debt of 3.5 billion US dollars, and a state budget of 1.8-2 billion dollars. If you inform the Armenian population about all this, then I am sure they will become more constructive on the Karabakh question,” he said.



At the moment, Azerbaijan has no shortage of potential presenters for the channel, since many Azeris lived in Armenia or Nagorny Karabakh until the conflict, and thus learned the language. At the moment, Shahid Shahaliyev, a 38-year-old Azeri who grew up in Armenia until his family fled in 1988, is the face of the Armenian-language programming.



However, the channel may have trouble expanding its staff base. The state broadcaster, which has had radio programmes in Armenian since 1992, admits it is having trouble finding young people to work for ATV International, since the severing of links between the two peoples has led to knowledge of the Armenian language dying out.



“We mainly have old people working for us. We need young staff, but Armenian speakers are trained only in the history faculty of Baku state university. And I am personally not happy with the level of their knowledge of the language,” said Sohbet Mammadov, head of Azerbaijan state radio’s Armenian department.



However, judging by the feedback he receives from his audience, it is not clear that the new television initiative will have the results intended, however well the language is spoken.



“Most of the letters we receive are full of complaints, and it is very rare for us to get a positive letter ... They are often not prepared to hear an alternative opinion,” Mammadov said.



Samira Hasanli is a freelance journalist.

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