In the period of state building and consolidation following the ceasefire of 1994 the media in both countries have undergone a transformative process reflecting new social and political realities. For impoverished populations television is by far the most influential medium, which consequently attracts overweening influence from both the state and business interests with political ambitions (or at least desires to appease those in control of regulatory mechanisms). While there is a higher margin of autonomy in the press, the influence of political groups and wealthy individuals is also significant here. Lean resources, undeveloped distribution networks, self-censorship and in some cases harassment further limit the potential for independent print journalism.
The post-ceasefire period has seen an overall decline of interest and coverage of the conflict, despite periodic peaks related to specific events in the peace process. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia discourse on the peace process in governmental and oppositional media have converged to express seemingly consensual understandings of ‘national interests’. A key implication is the wide observation of taboos on the nature and specifics of concessions that could be made to the other side. These taboos are supported by ingrained terminologies used to structure discourse on the conflict. In Azerbaijan, for instance, Armenia and Armenians are routinely referred to as ‘aggressors’, while Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was forced to retreat before a media storm when he publicly referred to the ‘occupied territories’, rather than the popular labels ‘security zone’ or even ‘liberated territories’.
In Armenia, a consistent decline of interest towards the Karabakh problem over the post-ceasefire years reflects the public mood that the conflict is solved by de facto Armenian control over Karabakh. Even if public opinion also considers concessions necessary to gain a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the specifics of Armenia’s possible concessions remain one of the most tabooed subjects in the press. Few analytical articles are published on Nagorny Karabakh, and those that are usually deal with the legal and political reasons for Karabakh’s secession, Armenia’s historical right to Karabakh and the ‘liberated territories’ (the seven neighbouring districts), or the might of the Armenian army.
By contrast Azerbaijani public opinion does not believe that the conflict is over, a view reflected and encouraged by the media. The possibility of a military solution features increasingly frequently, occasionally spilling over into blatant war propaganda. For instance, ANS, the leading private Azerbaijani TV and radio company, opens its daily news programmes with the words ‘Armenia’s aggression towards Azerbaijan continues’. ANS presenters refer to the conflict as the ‘first Karabakh war’, thereby clearly preparing viewers for a second. In the state-controlled Azerbaijani media, ‘pro-Armenian tendencies’ and ‘cooperation with Armenians’ are negative labels regularly used in campaigns to discredit opposition parties and independent NGOs. Human rights activists and journalists who meet and communicate with Armenian colleagues are ostracised.
Media in Azerbaijan have also had to contend with a dramatically deteriorating political climate since 2002. Regulatory mechanisms have multiplied, financial pressure has increased and non-conformist media have faced increasing persecution, culminating in the murder in March 2005 of journalist Elmar Huseynov, editor of what was widely seen as Azerbaijan’s most outspoken newspaper Monitor; the newspaper subsequently closed. The scope for autonomous initiatives, including contacts with Armenian journalists, is thus extremely narrow. Some contacts have nonetheless been maintained, some within regional frameworks, others bilaterally. A regional example is the Internews Crossroads programme, a project producing a half-hour magazine programme with ten minutes apiece from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting also works throughout the region to support independent journalists. Bilateral contacts have been maintained by the Yerevan and Baku Press Clubs, including joint public opinion surveys. Contacts between Azerbaijani and Karabakh Armenian journalists remain especially sparse. Although groups of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists have visited Baku and Stepanakert respectively, these contacts have declined in recent years. Contacts are now limited to one or two individuals, notably journalist Eynulla Fatullaev’s visit to Karabakh in 2005, covered in the newspaper Realny Azerbaydzhan. A small number of articles from the Azerbaijani press are printed in the independent newspaper Demo published by the Stepanakert Press Club and supported as part of the Consortium Initiative.