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Artsakh and the Battle for Truth
Many saw it coming but were ignored when attempting to bring attention to the crisis at hand.
On September 19th Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military attack on Artsakh or, as the Soviets called it, Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 200 people died, including women and children, and 400 were wounded. Baku claims until today that this was an anti-terrorist operation, at least when giving statements to the international community, necessary to rid the enclave of so-called armed separatists. Over 105,000 of the indigenous Armenians from Artsakh have now fled to Armenia. Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, finally achieved his goal; the ethnic cleansing of almost the entire region has come to fruition. Having said that, Baku still denies that an ethnic cleansing happened, according to Hikmet Hajiyev, spokesperson and advisor to the Aliyev government, the Armenians in Artsakh left entirely out of their own free will. No sanctions have yet been forced upon Azerbaijan by the United States, the European Union or the United Nations. It is unlikely such a thing will ever happen.
On September 29th, The New York Times claimed that almost “nobody” saw the bloody end, the violence the Azerbaijani military used after nine months of blockade in Artsakh, coming. Much to the frustration of (Armenian) journalists from the region who have literally begged larger newspapers to get anything published for months, but who were all rejected. Many saw it coming but were ignored when attempting to bring attention to the crisis at hand. A year prior to the violence that erupted two weeks ago, Genocide Watch issued a warning that genocide could be looming, as did the Lemkin Institute and former Prosecutor of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague (Netherlands) Luis Moreno Ocampo.
In fact, as of December 2022, just a few days after the blockade was imposed on the people of Artsakh, a group of twelve human rights organizations issued a genocide warning, among them were signatories such as The Philos Project, Center for Truth & Justice, International Christian Concern, In Defense of Christians, Baroness Caroline Cox, member of the British House of Lords, fellow at the Hudson Centre for International Religious Freedom, Lela Gilbert and Sheila Paylan, International Human Rights Lawyer and Activist. These are all well-known and respectable institutions and individual signatories. In March 2023 EU Parliament member for the Green Party, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, warned of the possibility of an ethnic cleansing in parliament. One wonders how The New York Times, and other Western media outlets, could have missed all these urgent warnings and then claim they were surprised when the actual ethnic cleansing of almost the entire Armenian population of Artsakh became a reality.
On 𝕏, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Brussel-based lawyer Gurgen Hakopian stated that journalists also bear responsibility for the destruction of Nagorno-Karabakh and how it was nearly impossible to get anything published on the blockade and the dire situation of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh prior to the report by former International Court of Justice head Luis Moreno Ocampo. Hakopian addresses the international press directly in a post, saying:
“Your job is to help prevent such atrocities by reporting on them in a timely manner and call out policy makers when it still matters. Even if it's not a sexy story. Save us your outrage now.”
The news items that did get published, most of the time, did not show much respect for the history of Artsakh and its people or Armenians and their century-long battle to survive in the Middle East and the Caucasus. For example, the Armenian people in Artsakh were called separatists by the media (the BBC, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal to name a few). I asked Dutch-Armenian legal expert Anouschka Agob about this label “separatists”.
“In the media, Artsakh Armenians are called separatists, but hardly any journalist explained why the Armenians from Artsakh insisted on self-governing. So many times, for example In the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), Armenia was recognized as a free and independent state, including Armenian-populated regions such as Artsakh, Javakhk, and Nakhichevan. This treaty basically promised all Armenians safety and support against genocide and ethnic cleansing. History has proven why such a treaty was necessary, one only needs to remember the pogroms of Hamidian (1894 until 1896), Adana pogrom (1909), Cilicia (1920), and Baku (1905, 1918). These massacres have cost the lives of tens of thousands of Armenian Christians in the region before and after what is known as the Armenian Genocide.”
After WWI European countries such as Great Britain, France, and Italy changed their mind, and another, the Treaty of Lausanne, was signed which was much more favorable to Turkey than to the Armenians. During Soviet times, Stalin decided Artsakh would become an autonomous administrative region of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923. As I wrote here before, according to the Lemkin Institute, Artsakh de facto never was under Azerbaijani authority or rule but has always maintained its autonomous status. And yet, CNN for example, stated that Azerbaijan had ‘regained’ full control (where it never had any control). Many news outlets wrote that three decades ago the population of Artsakh claimed independence from Azerbaijan, which supposedly led to the wars from the early nineties of the last century.
Agob: “When Armenians realized the Soviet Union would collapse, they remembered the empty promises that were made in the past by both the West and Moscow and declared their independence. Remember the pogroms that took place in Baku and Sumgait from 1988 to 1990 where, again, thousands of Armenians were slaughtered. Asking, in the light of all these massacres, and the fact that nobody came to our aid, that Armenians would easily give up their right to self-determination when Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey and Israel, increased its military power, is nothing but ignorant, putting our people at the whims of an aggressor that was never held responsible for any of these crimes.”
What surprised me the most as a journalist, is how easily the international press took statements from Baku without any disclaimer to their audience and even gave the Aliyev regime the opportunity to whitewash all its atrocities without any question asked. For example, the Dutch broadcasting company, NOS, repeated Baku’s promise that the Armenians from Artsakh would be free to follow their own religion without even mentioning how many churches and monasteries Azerbaijani military had already destroyed in both Artsakh and Nakhchivan. Immediately following the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians last week, we can see videos circulating online in which Azeri soldiers are shooting at cross-stones. We can also see how the cross monument in Artsakh’s capital Stepanakert was toppled.
Even now, after over 95 percent of the Armenian population of Artsakh has fled to Armenia for their own safety, the media do not acknowledge this threat. In fact, several publications have stated Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of ethnic cleansing, which they put in brackets, giving no mention to the fact that so many experts, politicians and independent journalists (the real ones) do too, and offering Azerbaijan a platform to deny this, again, pretending this is a “both sides” issue.
In The Guardian, A British newspaper, Nathalie Tocci wrote:
“It is also important to underline that the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, has not ordered the 120,000 local Armenians to leave, let alone pointed a gun at their heads.”
No, he just deprived them of food and medical care for over nine months and then launched a military attack on them, in which even children (Mikayel, 8, and his brother Nver, 10) were brutally killed. Depriving people of food is, according to former Prosecutor of the International Court of Justice, Moreno Ocampo, a form of genocide under Article II of the Genocide Convention.
While Aliyev in his speeches has compared Armenians to dogs, rats, a virus and recently even to a tumor (something you will hardly read about in the MSM) and after months of starvation during the blockade and the military aggression that followed on September 19th, Western media parroted that his regime would guarantee the rights of all Armenians in Artsakh and that a re-integration program would help Armenians assimilate into Azerbaijani culture. No questions asked. In fact, as the Lemkin Institute mentioned on Twitter/𝕏, why didn’t any of these media outlets demand access to Artsakh so they could see for themselves what was happening?
Because all communication lines were cut off and Azerbaijan took its time to clean up every trace of evidence before letting the UN and other organizations in, we will probably never know what really happened during the last weeks of violence to the already vulnerable ethnic Armenian people in Artsakh, after being cut off from food supplies and medical care for months prior to the atrocities. The international community, again, failed the Armenians and Azerbaijan will face no consequences, as it never has. Is all of this just a form of, as American-Armenian journalist and filmmaker Vic Gerami has put it, “lazy journalism”? Part of it surely is, that many of these facts listed above can be easily found on Google, but there is more.
In a 2022 interview, Gerami explains the enormous amount of money Azerbaijan spends on wining and dining journalists. Swedish journalist Rasmus Canbäck elaborated on how Azerbaijan invited him to the country, hoping he would write more favorably about them in the future. On August 1st, a group of American journalists visited Azerbaijan and in July this year in Shusha, which fell into Azeri hands following the 2020 war, a Global Media Forum was held to which many journalists from around the globe were invited. Just a few minutes’ drive away, 120,000 Armenians from Artsakh, were living under the blockade which was imposed on them in December 2022. Their gathering was after the genocide warning by Genocide Watch and others.
Reporters Without Borders placed Azerbaijan at number 151 (out of 180) on their annual index and states: “Authorities are trying to suppress the last of the still-independent media, as well as journalists who reject self-censorship.”
The two remaining journalists in Artsakh, Marut Vanyan whom I myself had the privilege to interview in July this year, and Siranush Sargsyan, worked 24/7 to document everything that was happening during a time they and their families were also desperately trying to find food and fuel to survive. When almost everyone had left Artsakh, Western media tried to catch up with them to get a story, yet failed them and their people, in every possible way.
For example, independent journalists like Neil Hauer, Lindsey Snell, and Rasmus Canbäck have been the target of Azerbaijani smear campaigns insinuating that they were paid by Armenia. Journalists who have been treated by Azerbaijan in numerous charm offensives and those only showing up after actual ethnic cleansing took place, safe though, in Armenia, not Azerbaijan, need to speak out for such reporters who have far more facts than they do and risk their own lives and reputation to get the truth out.
In a report from March this year, suggestive language such as “would-be journalist” is used to describe both Hauer and Snell. The latter is also accused of being a member of a Kurdish terrorist group (PKK) and much more. It seems when Azerbaijan cannot silence independent reporters, it uses insinuations to discredit fair and honest journalism.
One of the first (and only) media being allowed inside Artsakh was Al-Jazeera. Journalist Osama Bin Javaid recently reported that he found no Armenians had been forced to flee, nor was there, he wrote, any evidence of abuse by the Azerbaijani side. In 2021 there was a meeting in which cooperation between Azerbaijan and Al-Jazeera Media was discussed, but other media outlets still use Al-Jazeera’s reporting on the conflict without any hesitation.
Finally, after almost no Armenians were left in Artsakh, the UN Mission, accompanied by members of UNICEF, the WHO, and others, made it to the region almost two weeks after the military attack on its people broke out. Nobody demanded access to the region but waited for Azerbaijan to clean every evidence of violence and despair before being granted permission to come to the aid of people no longer there.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Monday:
“In parts of the city that the team visited, they saw no damage to civilian public infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, and housing, or the cultural and religious structures. The mission saw that the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan was preparing for the resumption of health services and some basic utilities in the city.”
Or, as journalist Lindsey Snell wrote Monday on her 𝕏/Twitter account:
“Here's the UN mission in Nagorno-Karabakh at the medical center hastily assembled by the Azerbaijani government (after the very vast majority of the Armenian population it starved and bombed fled) for the sole purpose of the UN visit. The UN is helping AZ create propaganda.”
Given the aggression we have witnessed and the threats coming from both Azerbaijan and Turkey with regard to sovereign Armenian territory such as Syunik, coupled with the fact that it already occupies 215 square kilometers of Armenian territory, since the 2020 war, reporting in a timely manner is of vital importance as Hakopian said. This, in addition to demanding policymakers act when needed and ask critical and informed questions to raise awareness, the basics of good journalism.