Ceasefire 20: Information war rages on despite two decades of truce

During the Karabakh war and the following 20 years of ceasefire information war has been a constant ‘companion’ of the conflict.

Angela Elibegova, a specialist in Azerbaijani studies based in Yerevan, says as the winning side in the war Armenia didn’t pay much attention to the informational confrontation for a long time, however when Azerbaijan started intensively distorting various facts about the conflict and the war and spreading them Armenia began developing a wide range of response mechanisms on an official level.

Since 2009 a big group of multi-profile specialists started working in Armenia. They managed to coordinate the information about the conflict and Karabakh and present them through books, websites and scientific works.

“For instance, the xocali.net project collected all the photographs that the Azerbaijani side was using in various brochures, posters and found out that they have no relation to the Khojalu events. Thus, Azerbaijan started not using photographs in their brochures and posters at all. Besides, the karabakhrecords.info portal was launched. It contains comprehensive information about the 1987-1992 events in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh and some other programs as well,” the expert says.

Expert in information affairs Karen Vrtanesyan says there has been informational persistence from the very first days of the conflict and even before that, during the Soviet years mainly expressed through scientific articles. During the recent years internet hacking attacks have become a major part of informational confrontation, which takes place on some significant days in the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

“After the war the Armenian side started dealing with its internal problems and the Azerbaijani side started getting active. The more they recovered the more active they acted in the informational sphere. Thus, the farther we departed from the war the more intensive Azerbaijani campaigning grew. If we follow the rhetoric there is an impression that the active war hasn’t ended yet,” Vrtanesyan notices.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in his public speeches often uses military rhetoric – he usually says that sooner or later Karabakh is going to be returned to Azerbaijan, he also likes to mention the indexes of emigration of Armenia emphasizing that Azerbaijan is superior to Armenia both by population and by natural resources, thus they can easily win Armenia. Co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group dealing with the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict in all their announcements encourage not to use war rhetoric, emphasizing that it creates additional tensions. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is normally more reserved in his statements and more often from international stages he points at the fact that Aliyev uses bellicose rhetoric, saying that the Azeri leader openly preaches hatred and animosity.

In February at the meeting of the Yerkrapah Volunteers’ Union President Sargsyan turned to Azerbaijan with a detailed speech. He spoke about borderline incidents, about civilian and military victims as a result of ceasefire violations, saying that “this is murder and Azerbaijani campaign introduces this to their nation as a fight for Karabakh.”

“These murders follow another purpose as well – to regularly intensify the situation and preserve the fire of hatred bright towards all Armenians. Anti-Armenianism is the key idea around which they want to gather the new Azerbaijani nation and around which they want to form the so-called ‘national ideology’. Hatred towards Armenians is turned into a synonym of patriotism,” Sargsyan said.

Armenian experts think that Aliyev’s military rhetoric is very effective especially for the internal audience.

“I normally call it a war-time campaigning. First of all, one of the purposes of their campaign is to hold their nation mobilized, directed towards Armenians and Armenia. Every problem in Azerbaijan is explained by Armenians, even in internal struggles when they want to get rid of somebody they say that the person’s mother or father is an Armenian. The other purpose is to shift the attention from national problems to exterior enemy – Armenians,” says Karen Vrtanesyan.

Elibegova also stresses that Aliyev’s military rhetoric is very effective for the internal audience. “They have taught their electorate to believe in everything, whatever comes from above, from the TV and never to analyze it. For 20 years they have been saying that soon they will liberate Karabakh, and all these 20 years they’ve believed in it. But, for instance, the younger generation who have never met an Armenian or know anything about Karabakh are quite indifferent to the question,” says the specialist who closely follows the Azerbaijani media.

Experts consider that a serious problem in the informational war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the fact that Armenian media often reproduce Azerbaijani false information without checking the facts, without trying to receive more valid information from a third source. However, both Elibegova and Vrtanesyan say that this trend was more widespread a few years ago, nowadays Armenian media are more careful.

“Our informational field is very diverse, there are media of various political directions, there are media that for promotional purposes bring more harm to Armenia than Azerbaijan itself. Azerbaijani media very often use Armenian politicians’ statements which are supposedly directed towards the internal audience but come very handy for the Azerbaijani side. Particularly, Azerbaijan works very hard on the thesis of devaluating Armenia’s victory in the war. One of such thesis is that Russia fought for us, but for Russia, Azerbaijan would have won, and this thesis was recently heard in Armenian media as well,” says Vrtanesyan.

Vrtanesyan also notices that unlike Armenian media there is tense vertical supervision over Azerbaijani media. “The whole informational field is meticulously controlled, and all of it is done in a very coordinated manner, there is an impression that in the morning they receive a paper that has all they need to say and with a slight change the same campaigning thesis is being circulated.”

“In Azerbaijan you can clearly see the hierarchy, how orders come from above, how they get spread, what happens to journalists who don’t agree with the rules of the game, like Rauf Mirkadirov (he was arrested on charges of spying for Armenia), Khadija Ismayilova (she was repeatedly blackmailed, spied on and a video on her personal life was found in the net). The rules of the game are very clear – either you are with the system or you are destroyed,” Elibegova says.

According to Freedom House’s latest report, both Armenia and Azerbaijan remain among countries with ‘not free press’. According to the 2014 report, Azerbaijani indexes appear very negative as the country is said to be going in a wrong direction. It is mostly about silencing independent opinions, among which the voices that are heard in the internet. Armenia is in a little better situation.”