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Armenia: Action Puts Bloggers In Media Spotlight

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, International Relations, Media & Journalism, Politics, Protest, War & Conflict, Youth

In countries such as Armenia where the mainstream broadcast media is firmly under the control of government-connected businessmen and/or officials, while the traditional print and online media largely reflects the opposition in the country, there is no doubt that blogs have an important role to play in the dissemination of information, news and views.

Yet, until recently, this has not been the case, perhaps in part to the low level of internet penetration in the country as well as a largely apathetic potential audience. However, since the 12 May parliamentary election 2007 in Armenia, and especially as the country readies itself for the 19 February 2008 presidential election, that might now all be changing.

But rather than change as the result of alternative, opposition voices seeking to involve themselves in the internal political life of the country, the situation might now be changing because of four bloggers who protested on and offline against an event staged early this week at a Yerevan school to promote peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The two countries have been in an effective state of war over the breakaway mainly-Armenian inhabited territory of Nagorno Karabakh for two decades and attempts to sign a lasting peace agreement since a 1994 ceasefire fail time after time. The event, Days of Azerbaijan in Armenia, was funded by the British Embassy in Yerevan and hoped to change the perception of Armenia's defacto enemy in the minds of local school children.

This is how I reported the news [1] on my own blog.

PanArmenian.Net reports that Armenian bloggers have protested the opening of the Days of Azerbaijan posted earlier. Well, it’s fair to say that they don’t represent Armenian bloggers as a group, but it is interesting to see the use of the word blog in a headline or story. […]

[…]

/PanARMENIAN.Net/ A group of Armenian bloggers handed a symbolic present – a peace of soap – to Georgy Vanyan, the initiator of “Days of Azerbaijan” in Yerevan. The present was handed with a wish “for better work.”

The measure had for an object to teach the organizers of the so-called Days of Azerbaijan a good lesson.

[…]

The four Live Journal bloggers — Uzogh [2], Pigh [3], Aerial_vortex [4] and Akunamatata_ser [5] — were angered by the attempt to hold such an event at a school run by Armenia's former Minister of Education, Ashot Bleyan, who is often accused of “anti-Armenian” positions on Nagorno Karabakh and Genocide recognition. Speaking to Global Voices for this post, Uzogh explains in more detail how and why the four bloggers staged their action.

On December 14, the day when the press release announcing the event at Bleyan's school was sent to public, I wrote a post [6] [RUS] expressing my anger towards the organizers and sponsors of this event. The post resulted in many comments and a rather long discussion with Mark Grigoryan (Armenian journalist now residing in UK).

Some of the participants of this discussion suggested doing something to make this event a failure, but I preferred to take some time out for reflection before resorting to action. A day later, I concluded that an aggressive action would not result in the failure of the event, but would rather turn the organizers into some kind of victims which would lead to increased publicity and additional fund raising opportunities.

That's why I instead preferred to pursue a tactic of mockery and shared this idea with a few bloggers that had already expressed their intention to join any protest action. We had a brainstorming at my house on Sunday and figured out what could be done.

I didn't want to make this a public protest action, and none of us are members of any political party or non-formal group etc, so we did not aim to attract a lot of supporters. This was the protest by a few men and citizens, and not a civic action. At its core was the concept that we didn't like the strategy of unilateral reconciliation through the brain-washing of children.

In a sense, and unlike how bloggers are usually perceived, the root of the action could be considered nationalist. However, what was most interesting was that it largely seems to have attracted the support of other bloggers regardless of their political orientation. One such blogger, for example, who spoke highly of the action [7] was The Armenian Observer.

At the opening ceremony of the event, which took place in the Mkhitar Sebastatsi educational complex headed by Former Minister of Education Ashot Bleyan, the group of mentioned Bloggers rushed to the speaker – head of the Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiatives (CCPMI) Georgi Vanyan and presented him with pieces of soap. This symbolic gesture, which is highly offensive and contains elements of bitter sarcasm, was carried out as a form of protest, for implementing this action, which according to blogger Pigh […] is quite untimely, doesn’t contribute to the promotion of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in any way, and is only seen by the Bloggers as a way for Mr. Vanyan, to launder grant money – even at the price of hurting his country’s interests.

Another blogger, Blogian, also approved of the action even though he himself is in favor of finding a lasting peaceful settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Indeed, according to Uzogh, the four bloggers who staged the action are also not against such objectives, but like Blogian are instead against activities run by individuals whose positions on such initiatives are not supported by the bulk of society in the country. Blogian explains [8].

The selective Radio Free Europe report on a British Embassy-sponsored event called “Days of Azerbaijan” in Armenia has been brought upon fierce criticism from bloggers after the U.S. State Department-sponsored news agency failed to mention that a group of bloggers in Armenia had protested the event by handing a soap to the Armenian organizers of “Days of Azerbaijan” as reported by sources such as PanArmenian.net and ArmeniaNow.

[…]

Being one of the few bloggers that has spoken for Armenian and Azeri rehumanization, I still have to protest “Days of Azerbaijan” for my VERY PERSONAL reasons.

VERY PERSONAL, because I treat every medieval Armenian cross-stone that Azerbaijan reduced to dust two years ago as my own dead relative and I don’t want a group of idiots organizing ”Days of Azerbaijan” in Armenia during the second anniversary of Djulfa cemetery’s destruction.

If “Days of Azerbaijan” included commemoration and condemnation of Djulfa’s destruction I’d be for the event. But since one of the organizers, Ashot Bleyan, has suggested in the past that Armenian students shouldn’t learn about the Armenian Genocide, one can’t expect much from morons like him.

Yet, even though the action did disrupt the event if only for a few seconds and certainly made it's point, what is also interesting is that many media outlets neglected to report that it had occurred. One of those publications was the online version of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for example. However, the event and the action was covered by a few television stations and thus firmly put blogging and bloggers firmly on the map in Armenia.

Again speaking to Global Voices for this post, Uzogh explains what the action achieved.

Many people from the Armenian Live Journal community have written supportive posts quoting our original report from the action. This enthusiasm brought our posts to the top three positions in the Yandex blog rating — something like the Russian-language-Google which pays a lot of attention to, and maintains its own popularity rating for, blogs. Our posts resulted in lots of supporting protest posts from other LJ users. This feeling of support was amazing, and I finally understand for the first time what it means to have such support.

The action was successful and we made our voice heard. We pushed the words of bloggers into the offline media, and we made journalists curious about what blogs are. We successfully expressed our feeling of deep disagreement about the event at Bleyan's school and I think this action broke the ice in terms of stopping the silence in the Armenian media about blogs. To be honest, I'm a little proud of that.

Uzogh promises more actions by bloggers in the near future.