Reporters Without Borders is very concerned that both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been denying entry to foreign journalists amid an increase in tension between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory within Azerbaijan that has a mostly Armenian population. The media have become a hostage to this conflict.
“We urge the Armenian and Azerbaijan authorities to leave the media out of their diplomatic dispute,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Journalists must be free to do their work, which involves covering matters of general interest, including ones as sensitive as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. They must be able to able to move about without having to obtain permission from either side. Compiling blacklists of journalists for exclusion is both unacceptable and ineffective.”
In the latest case, Yuri Snegirev, the correspondent of the Russian daily Izvestiya, was banned from entering Azerbaijan on 1 July as a result of two articles about Nagorno-Karabakh that were published on 29 and 30 June. The ban was announced by foreign ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov, who accused Snegirev of just reflecting the Armenian viewpoint. The ministry also complained that he had used the Armenian names for the cities of Stepanakert and Shushi (Khankendi and Shusha in Azeri) although they are the names usually used in Russian.
Three days before that, on 28 June, Bloomberg photo-journalist Diana Markosian was denied entry to Azerbaijan on landing at Baku airport. The authorities initially claimed that Bloomberg had changed the name on its accreditation request at the last moment. But Markosian told Reporters Without Borders she had been in regular contact with Polukhov during the three weeks prior to her arrival and that her news agency had sent all the requested documents.
Polukhov finally recognised that the reason for the ban was Markosian’s Armenian-sounding surname although she has US and Russian dual nationality. “Bloomberg management was informed that Azerbaijan is at war with Armenia,” Polukhov said. “For this reason, there would be problems providing security for the Armenian Diana Markosian. We asked the agency to send another photographer instead of Markosian.”
Sergei Buntman, the deputy chief editor of the Moscow-based independent radio station Ekho Moskvy, was banned from visiting Azerbaijan on 23 May. Paralleling his later action with Snegirev, Polukhov announced the ban the day after Ekho Moskvy broadcast interviews conducted by Buntman with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Like Snegirev, Buntman had also upset the Azerbaijani authorities by travelling to Nagorno-Karabakh without requesting their permission. The region is nonetheless a de facto independent state and impartial coverage of the issue necessitates a visit.
Nagorno-Karabakh is not the only story that has resulted in foreign journalists being denied entry or deported from Azerbaijan. A TV crew from Sweden’s First National TV was arrested and escorted to the airport while trying to cover an opposition demonstration on 17 April.
A few days later, a leading New York Times reporter was told he would not get a visa if did not submit the articles he had written about Azerbaijan and explain why there was so much “negative information” about Azerbaijan in the United States. “This is all rather stupid and ridiculous,” the journalist told Reporters Without Borders. “In the 21st century, you can be in Australia and interview someone living in London, Moscow or Baku (...) All they will achieve this way is that our stories will not longer include their views or comments because they refuse to talk to us.”
Although apparently a less repressive country, Armenia preceded its neighbour in barring journalists. A four-member crew that wanted to film interviews for a documentary that the Lithuanian TV station Komanda was making about Nagorno-Karabakh was denied entry on arrival at Yerevan airport on 11 March. They finally left after waiting for 28 hours at the airport.
Several Armenian news media then claimed that the documentary’s producer, Andrius Brokas, was a spy working for Azerbaijan and a senior Armenian foreign ministry official told the media that “it is obvious that their aim was to damage Armenia’s reputation.” In response to a query from Reporters Without Borders, foreign ministry adviser Tigran Mkrchyan said in a 22 March letter that the crew was turned back “for security reasons.”
A cradle of local culture that is a powerful symbol for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Nagorno-Karabakh has a mostly Armenian population despite being part of Azerbaijan. Its declaration of independence in 1991 triggered a violent armed conflict and an exodus of around a million refugees. The dispute has been on hold since a 1994 ceasefire and Nagorno-Karabakh has continued to govern itself during a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach a solution. The past few months have seen a series of bellicose statements by Azerbaijan proclaiming its readiness to recover the lost territory, accompanied by skirmishes along the border.
Picture : Elkhan Polukhov