This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.
[This entry is cross-posted from a project, Common Ground in the Caucasus, undertaken by Global Voices Online's Caucasus Editor for Transitions Online.]
With a peaceful resolution to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh as elusive as ever, Armenians and Azerbaijanis are unable to visit each other’s country or communicate through traditional means such as telephone or mail.
However, as the local media usually self-censors or resorts to propaganda when it comes to relations between the two countries, can new and social media step in to fill the gap to break the information blockade?
A week before video blogging youth activists Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were detained in Baku, Azerbaijan, an Armenian sitting hundreds of kilometers away in Yerevan, Armenia, posted a YouTube video on his Facebook page. The video, by Hajizade, introduced the now vacant Armenian Church in the Azerbaijan capital to subscribers to the youth activist’s online video channel. The message was simple. It was a virtual hand of friendship extended across a closed border and a ceasefire line still in place for over 15 years since the 1994 ceasefire.
For many Armenians with access to Facebook, this was the first time that they were presented with an alternative image of the ‘enemy,’ and one very different than that usually portrayed in the local media. For one Armenian opposition youth activist, however, such stereotypes were not easily changed. She left a comment saying that while Hajizade seemed to be tolerant and progressive beyond all expectations, she doubted that there were others like him in Azerbaijan. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Later, when Hajizade and Milli were detained for their other activities, more Armenians discovered a whole network of young activists in Azerbaijan who leapt to Hajizade and Milli’s defense on the popular social networking site. Through the skillful and exemplary use of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, it wasn’t long before the international media caught up and covered the case while activists in Armenia looked on with envy. A week earlier, a young opposition activist had been detained in Yerevan, but few covered the case at all.
Even so, progressive youth in Azerbaijan were also able to see through Facebook that some Armenians also supported the campaign for Hajizade and Milli’s release. More importantly, perhaps, they could see that they did so not for propaganda purposes in order to paint Azerbaijan in a bad light, but simply out of genuine concern. Such a development was in sharp contrast to the media in both Armenia and Azerbaijan where many journalists have effectively become ‘combatants’ in an information war of attrition.
“[A] negative context [is set] in the public consciousness, which hinders dialogue and mutual understanding,” said a report on Armenian-Azerbaijani media bias by the Caucasus Resource Research Center (CRRC) for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF) last year. “Without more accurate and unbiased information […] free of negative rhetoric and stereotypes, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will continue to see themselves as enemies without any common ground.”
On Facebook, blogs and Twitter, however, perceptions were changing, or at least to some extent. Moreover, for those youth in both countries who were already in contact with each other, albeit in secret, they now felt empowered and confident enough to do so openly. Others also joined their ranks.
“These new tools can be used to foment violence or to foster peace,” wrote Global Voices Online Executive Director Ivan Sigal in a paper, Digital media in conflict-prone societies, for the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) early last year. “[However] it is possible to build communication systems that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions,” the former researcher on citizen media at the US Institute of Peace added.
Therefore, it perhaps came as no surprise when last year some civil society groups which regularly convening meetings between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in third countries, started to take notice of what was happening online. This author, for example, was approached by two such organizations for contacts given their own largely unsuccessful efforts to find suitable participants from Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, however, while the open nature of the Internet was vital in identifying new participants, their own activities remained as closed as ever.
Another recent report, Obstacles and opportunities for civil society development in the South Caucasus, also published by CRRC, highlighted the persistence of strong pre-transition social networks in the sector. “NGOs are “autocratic”, “top-down” and “donor-driven”, [and] maintain an “existence more closely related to the salaries of employees than the potential benefits for the target group”,” opined social media expert Dan McQuillan on his blog just days before a Civil Society Forum held in Bratislava, Slovakia, last year.
Moreover, an Armenian organizer of one civil society initiative to bring Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians together doubted that Hajizade and Milli were even genuinely arrested. An inherent lack of trust in the other side lead her to initially suspect that the new generation of activists in Azerbaijan were merely an ‘invention’ of their president to deceive the Council of Europe. Only after making contact with such people via my Facebook page before finally meeting them in Telavi, Georgia, was she convinced enough to change her mind.
But, had there been either the will or an understanding of the potential of using new media tools effectively, such a revelation could have occurred long before. And even then, two diplomatic sources speaking to Transitions Online not only considered that civil society has failed to achieve anything by way of a breakthrough in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, but also risks not spreading their networks wide enough. Indeed, many working in the area of promoting the use of new online tools in conflict resolution and transformation remain unimpressed.
“A significant amount of civil society work within the South Caucasus reinforces status quo policies where governments profit from war and exacerbate cultural differences to their advantage,” says Micael Bogar, Projects Manager at the American University Center for Social Media. “Surprisingly, a notable portion of the non-profit sector plays a role in this corrupt practice. New media tools, with their powerful and cheap ability to communicate across borders, threaten [their] wasteful practices.”
As a result, the former Peace Corps Volunteer in the South Caucasus says, many civil society organizations remain reluctant to fully investigate their potential. However, while singling out the use of new and social media to campaign for Hajizade and Milli as well as an American project to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani teenagers together online as success stories, Bogar says another issue is access. Although Georgia and Azerbaijan have cheaper and faster Internet compared to Armenia, penetration and connection speeds remain low throughout the region.
“While there is an elite element within civil society with access, but no interest, there is an even larger pool of citizens within the South Caucasus who may have the desire to work towards peace but lack any real long term ability to use these tools towards that end,” she says.
Indeed, concluded the CRRC report, the Millennium Challenges Account (MCA), a U.S. government international assistance program, should consider investing in the creation of a regional high-speed Internet backbone as well as widespread use of Web 2.0 and mobile Internet technologies. Yet, even without that, existing tools and infrastructure offer a way to break the information blockade. If willing, journalists in both Armenia and Azerbaijan could use Skype or other Internet chat programs, for example, to communicate directly with each other.
IREX, for example, has identified the inability of journalists to check facts as a major obstacle to the development of the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is particularly true in the case of coverage of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations where inaccurate information is often as common as propaganda.
For civil society, such tools also offer participants of confidence building initiatives to remain in touch long after short encounters held in countries such as Georgia end. As it is, the participants of such programs from Armenia and Azerbaijan do not make contact before physically meeting, and most do not remain in contact after they do. Yet, the viral nature of the Internet as well as the social networking aspect of blogs and sites such as Facebook could set examples of Armenians and Azerbaijanis openly being in normal contact with each other.
Spread on Twitter and Facebook as well as on established blogs such as Ianyan by Liana Aghajanyan, a prominent Armenian blogger, and Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines by Arzu Geybullayeva, a regional analyst from Baku, TOL’s recent project in Georgia, also supported by the British Embassy in Yerevan, showed that the potential to succeed is there. True, it might represent just a drop in the ocean for now, but Internet penetration is increasing in the South Caucasus and connection speeds will increase as costs continue to come down.
Then, when alternative voices in the media and society can be heard through alternative methods of delivering information online, perhaps the traditional mainstream media in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as civil society in general, might finally have no choice but to change their existing approach of spreading partisan propaganda and perpetuating negative stereotypes to slowly prepare the grounds for genuine dialogue and an exchange of reliable, factual information.
This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.