Onnik Krikorian is a British blogger, journalist, and photographer of Armenian decent who has been living in Yerevan, one of the world's oldest continuously-inhabited cities, for the past 11 years. He is the Caucasus Editor for Global Voices where he amplifies the latest discussions taking place among bloggers in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Most recently he has focused his efforts on covering the case against two Azeri bloggers who were sentenced to two and two and a half years in jail.
My name is Onnik Krikorian. I'm the Caucasus Editor for Global Voices Online. I actually can't remember how long I've been working for Global Voices which maybe is a good sign … I think maybe two years. But I've been aware of it since it started pretty much. I went to the London conference but I don't think I was officially working for Global Voices then. I am based in Armenia, though I am from England, and I cover Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Usually it is whatever is happening Unfortunately, with the region, it tends to be political and especially around elections or arrests or violence after elections. Stuff like that. I mean, I have tried to do more cultural things but generally, because of the environment in the region, most of the active, well-known bloggers tend to write about politics.
David: Most recently I see that you've been writing a lot about two Azeri bloggers who I think were just sentenced to prison today. Can you describe a little about that?
Onnik: Yeah, actually, it's one of the delights, strangely enough, has been to encounter the use of new media by youth activists in Azerbaijan. Totally unprecedented for the region and also exemplary for other countries such as Armenia and Georgia. Of course, their use was so effective that they showed up on the government radar screen in Azerbaijan. And, as a result, they ended up being detained after they were attacked. When they went to make a complaint at the police station the government/police/whoever turned it around and used the charge of hooliganism against them even though they were the victims. And it was pretty much a clear signal to youth activists in Azerbaijan: be silent. And, yes, they were sentenced today to two and two and a half years respectively.
David: What got you so involved in that case?
Onnik: I guess as someone who has lived in the region for 11 years, and as someone who works for Global Voices Online, who is monitoring the use of new media, who uses new media himself and who believes in it as a potential medium for change … after being disappointed in Armenia where the blogs became very politicized, I suddenly saw a really impressive, mature, intelligent use of new media in Azerbaijan. So I was following their activities anyway, and then when they were attacked, and when they were detained, it was just like, this needs to be covered. And, of course, it would need to be covered anyway. But the point is that I was always aware of them anyway.
As for me, it was an example to the whole region of how new media could be used by civil society to try to promote change in authoritarian countries of which actually all of the states in the South Caucasus are.
David: What do you see as some similarities and differences in the region that you cover on Global Voices and other regions that are covered on Global Voices?
Onnik: I guess I might get kinda jealous of the other regions. Mainly because usually the internet penetration is higher. The use of blogs is higher. The number of blogs is higher. Even, if you consider that most of the countries of the South Caucasus have very tiny populations – like Armenia is not more than three million Georgia is about five, Azerbaijan is seven. So, already you have a small population in the region. And internet penetration is very low as well so it means that there are less blogs. Also, I would like to see some more mature use. I did say that I did see that happening in the region, but the blogosphere is not as developed as in other regions.
The other difference is because of the nature of the South Caucasus the key events – and it's not just blogs, it's also the media unfortunately – the main areas of interest in the South Caucasus usually relate to falsified elections, war, and that's it really.
David: Give us a story that you've covered in the South Caucasus that doesn't have to do with politics.
Onnik: OK, one of my favorite Global Voices posts in fact was, actually again, from Azerbaijan and it was about Novruz which is the Zoroastrian new year The Iranians celebrate it, in Turkey they celebrate it and in Azerbaijan. And there are actually some cultural blogs which have been very refreshing for me to see based in Azerbaijan. And one of the blogs, “Sheki, Azerbaijan” is a wonderful wonderful blog which really sums up the culture, customs, and traditions of Azerbaijan. And there were many others as well dealing with Novruz, and that was one of my favorite favorite posts. It was nice. It wasn't violence, it wasn't elections it wasn't war, it was just a really nice post that summed up the richness of the culture of the South Caucasus.
David: We've talked a little bit about the use of social media to bring people who are from different communities or different countries together. Do you have some examples or thoughts about that?
Onnik: Actually, Global Voices has been a good example of that because, for example, I am based in Armenia, I am half Armenian. And Armenia and Azerbaijan are at war with each other over a disputed territory situated within Azerbaijan. Communication links are closed, borders are closed, it's impossible even for me as a British citizen to visit Azerbaijan because of my surname, which is an Armenian surname.
However, writing about some of these blog entries on Global Voices has actually got me emails from people in Azerbaijan thanking me. And that was actually kind of unprecedented and was such a pleasant surprise. Even most recently because of the coverage of the Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli case I even received an email – again, a reader message from my Global Voices page – from a 24-year-old Azeri refugee from Armenia who was forced to leave Armenia at the age of four when the war started.
Again, just thanking me. And now we're in communication. Now we're Facebook friends. Those sorts of things have happened because of new media and because of Global Voices. I mean, nothing can replace that. That has been one of the best highlights of this year.