A euronews documentary on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabkah is stoking acrimony, with Azerbaijani officials accusing the European broadcaster of harboring bias against Baku.
The nine-minute November 28 documentary, titled Winds of Change in Nagorno-Karabakh, identifies the region as a breakaway territory from Azerbaijan, and the source of centuries of disputes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The film, however, focuses primarily on the Armenian influence on Karabakh, both via the churches that exist there and the presence of ethnic Armenian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Interviews are included with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Bako Sahakian, the de facto president of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, about the 21-year conflict over Karabakh, but not with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
In a letter sent to euronews, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the report as "one-sided [and] biased," and containing "many factual mistakes." Taking its cue from the government, Azerbaijan's television regulatory body, the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC), on December 5 threatened to block the network's programs from Azerbaijani cable television.
"The NTRC as a regulatory body has the power to instruct cable TV companies to withdraw euronews from their list of programs, if the broadcasting of anti-Azerbaijan reports and programs casting doubt on Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is continued," Neymat Javadov, chief counsel for NTRC, told EurasiaNet. "Euronews broke the principle of presenting information which must be impartial, neutral and accurate. These principles are fixed in Azerbaijan's law on TV and radio broadcasting, which also says that no ethnic or national discrimination is allowed."
Elhan Poluhov, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, stated that the ministry has not yet received an official reply to its complaints from euronews, based in Ecully, France. The ministry has also requested that the documentary be pulled from distribution and removed from the euronews website, he said.
Local media rights groups, outspoken on earlier government disputes with international radio broadcasters and Azerbaijani bloggers, have so far kept quiet on the threat to pull the plug on euronews, a network made up of 21 European broadcasting companies that has become a news staple for many viewers throughout the South Caucasus.
Emin Huseynov, head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety, considers the report non-objective because it does not address Karabakh's former Azeri population. At the same time, Huseynov said it would be a mistake to block euronews' broadcasts. "We will not resolve the problem by just depriving the Azerbaijani population of euronews' programs, especially when most people got it through satellite," Huseynov said. "It is the authorities' usual approach -- just prohibit something. "
The film comes at a delicate moment for Azerbaijan and the Karabakh peace process. The signing of a rapprochement agreement between Armenia and Turkey earlier this year has sparked worries that Azerbaijan may find itself short-changed on a potential Karabakh peace settlement. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
That sensitivity is evident in a response from the governing Yeni Azerbaijani Party to the documentary. In a December 1 letter sent to the euronews board of directors, party leaders warned that the mini-documentary could have adverse repercussions on the Karabakh talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The report may deal "a heavy blow to the peace, stability and mutual trust established in the region," the letter stated.
Poluhov elaborated that Baku takes issue with the report's alleged presentation of "Armenians as the native population of Nagorno-Karabakh," rather than as a population that he claimed was "resettled to this area." The government charges that the report also failed to state that Azerbaijanis make up "the majority" of the cited 1 million people displaced by the 1988-1994 Karabakh conflict.
Visa regulations feed Baku's anger, too. The ministry received "no notification" of euronews's intentions to visit Karabakh, which is recognized under international law as part of Azerbaijan, Poluhov said. Foreign journalists routinely dispense with these formalities since Baku-issued credentials are not recognized in Karabakh and the region cannot be accessed via Azerbaijani-controlled territory. The practice, however, has resulted in Baku sometimes denying Azerbaijani accreditation to offending journalists.
Euronews has rebutted the charge that its documentary biased. In a December 4 interview with Azerbaijan's Trend news agency, euronews Editor-in-Chief Peter Barabas asserted that the documentary was not intended to look into the political side of the conflict. Rather, the network hoped to show how the conflict had affected people living on either side of the frontline, he said.
"We are very keen to go and to do the story on the other side, with the people of Azerbaijan, the people who live in the conflict zone, and would like to do the story on the Azerbaijani refugees [IDPs - ed], who left the region because of the conflict," Barabas said.
Euronews' word choice could well propel the dispute. In Baku's eyes, "the people of Azerbaijan" include residents of Karabakh. Barabas expressed hope that the Azerbaijani government will grant the euronews team "access to do the same story as we did on the Armenian side because we want to be very transparent about this."
The network has sent a request Azerbaijan's embassy in Belgium to film a story on Karabakh IDPs living in Azerbaijani-controlled territory, but Poluhov said that the Foreign Ministry has not yet received the letter.
Mina Miradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.