In a rare meeting, journalists from Armenia and Azerbaijan call for empathy and patience

Journalists from both Armenia and Azerbaijan coming together in the neighboring country of Georgia, a neutral zone for both sides, which have had no diplomatic ties for two decades, have agreed that although there are huge differences between the two societies in terms of the status quo, both sides need a bit of understanding, patience and a touch of humanity, a wish that can be realized through the hard work of conflict-sensitive journalism, which needs to be promoted on both sides.

“It is just like a building under construction — you set the base, so that the building can stand firmly,” Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani freelance journalist, said in an interview with Today’s Zaman.

Noting journalists’ important role in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Geybullayeva believes that journalists have a very unique power to move the settlement process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict forward, and that is why a choice should be made as to whether journalists will engage in conflict-sensitive journalism or stay among those who report on the conflict in the usual way today.

“If a conscious decision is made to be conflict-sensitive reporters, then we can be the ones adding that very ‘pinch of patience’ to the rhetoric around the conflict,” Geybullayeva said.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan, with a majority Armenian population, became the main reason for the ethnic-territorial conflict that erupted between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in the early 1990s, as a result of which Armenian-backed forces seized Nagorno-Karabakh along with seven adjacent Azeri districts. A truce was signed in 1994, but there was no peace treaty. Violence flares sporadically along the front line, while the media is considered to be one of the prime sources of propaganda that not only prolongs the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and leaves it unsettled but also agitates the nations against each other.

Underlining the importance of conflict-sensitive reporting and agreeing with Geybullayeva that “journalists should add more salt and pepper, rather than wood, to the fire,” Sargis Khandanyan, a young journalist working for Yerevan-based Civilnet, is suspicious about the current state of media, as he does not think that journalists contribute to the peaceful settlement of the conflict.

“On the contrary, journalism and journalists are being used as tools for propaganda, hence they are somehow victims of that propaganda. However, journalists can form an image of reality on both sides, presenting it ‘close to reality’,” Khandanyan said, in an interview with Today’s Zaman, adding that conflict-sensitive journalism is a must for journalists covering the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but unfortunately only a few journalists are aware and make balanced stories using wording that is acceptable to both sides.

Khandanyan and Geybullayeva, along with 16 other Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists, came together for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict-aware journalism program held on Jan. 11-17 by the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, which has been organizing Azerbaijani-Armenian dialogue projects since 2007 that aim to positively transform relations between the two nations and bring lasting and sustainable peace in both conflict-torn societies.

Rizvan Hüseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and historian, underlines the role of journalism in all sociopolitical processes of the world. However, he thinks that it has a strong influence on the coverage of conflicts, as “any incorrect wording, comments or aggressive rhetoric might lead to greater confrontation and bloodshed.”

“That’s why journalists who are reporting about conflicts should undergo certain training in which they the learn the skills of conflict-sensitive journalism. Only after learning these skills can journalists avoid provocative coverage of the conflict and find topics that can ease the confrontation between the sides. Personally, from my own experience, I can say that journalistic courses and training allowed me to do less harm and instead learn more and contribute to the reconciliation between our peoples,” Hüseynov said, speaking with Today’s Zaman.

Another Armenian participant in the program, Aghavni Harutyunyan, who is also known as an analyst for the AZG daily, thinks that journalists can contribute to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict only if they do their job professionally and do not become tools of propaganda.

“With no wish to judge the journalists working in Armenia and Azerbaijan, I can only hold up my own experience as a basis for assessment, with the conclusion that nothing is done perfectly. Doing a better job, being sensitive to conflict-related issues and paying more attention to our wording will be affected by an understanding coming from conflict-sensitive journalism,” Harutyunyan said.