The Media War by Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

by Lisa Gulesserian (Harvard University) and David L. Phillips (Columbia University)

Azerbaijan and Turkey attacked Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27. They also launched a media war to blame Armenians for the escalation of deadly conflict. Their disinformation and disingenuous diplomacy must be addressed so that the truth can be known and peace can prevail.
A slaughter is underway of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in southwestern Azerbaijan populated almost entirely by Armenians. Armenians living in this enclave, just six times the size of New York City, have been relentlessly targeted for the last three weeks with artillery and cluster bombs. A humanitarian ceasefire agreed to by both sides over the weekend unraveled within minutes when Azerbaijan renewed hostilities. 
While committing atrocities against civilians, Turkey and Azerbaijan are simultaneously engaged in a war of words to whitewash their responsibility. These countries have repeatedly denied facts verified by credible sources. As early as September 30, the Guardian and CNN published reports about Syrian mercenaries fighting for Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh. In a press release on October 2, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister denied the presence of Syrian mercenaries and shifted blame, accusing Armenia of using terror proxies: “There are numerous facts of the use of terrorist groups and mercenaries in military operations by Armenia,” he said. The next day, October 3, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, denied to Al Jazeera that Syrian mercenaries were being deployed in the region. He disparaged Emmanuel Macron’s claim that France had evidence of Syrian mercenaries deployed by Turkey. 
Despite official denials by Azerbaijan, many news outlets have confirmed that Syrian mercenaries are on the battlefield fighting for Azerbaijan and Turkey. Sources as diverse as the Wall Street Journal (“Turkish-Backed Syrian Fighters Join Armenian-Azeri Conflict”), Foreign Policy (“Syrians Make Up Turkey’s Proxy Army in Nagorno-Karabakh”), and National Interest (“Nagorno-Karabakh: Why Turkey Is Sending Syrian Mercenaries To War In Azerbaijan”) confirm that Syrian mercenaries have been contracted to kill Armenians, who are Christian, in Nagorno-Karabakh. 
Denial is routine for Turkey. Turkish officials still deny that a genocide against Armenians and other Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire occurred between 1915-1923. The genocide—now recognized by over 32 countries, including the United States Congress—has not been recognized by Turkey. Officials there call the killing of up to 1.5 million Armenians “regular wartime occurrences,” indicating that massive losses were incurred on both “sides.” 
In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan use a well-worn tactic of denying facts so that they can continue their crimes while the international community struggles to understand what is really going on. While increasing their combat operations, Turkey and Azerbaijan have also intensified their official whitewashing of events through disinformation. 
Disinformation is an industry. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Republic of Azerbaijan has signed 45 contracts with US-based public relations firms. Fees to each firm range between $15,000 and $50,000 a month. Without taking into account new contracts this year, for which data is unavailable, Azerbaijan paid over $1.25 million to public relations consultants over the past five years to bolster Azerbaijan’s image in the media and to lobby members of the US Congress. 
In July 2020, BGR Group, working on behalf of Azerbaijan, sent US elected officials an op-ed by Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Elin Suleymanov, which fabricated details about a violent altercation between Azerbaijani and Armenian demonstrators in Los Angeles. His article was published immediately after an Armenian school in San Francisco was vandalized with anti-Armenian, pro-Azerbaijani graffiti.
Not only does Azerbaijan spend a fortune on US-based public relations firms, it also pays residents of Azerbaijan to engage in an online disinformation campaign. On October 8, Facebook deleted 589 Facebook accounts, 7,906 Pages, and 447 accounts on Instagram that were engaged in “inauthentic behavior” (in other words: spreading lies). According to an internal memo written by Facebook’s Sophie Zhang, the company waited a year to open investigations on the ruling political party of Azerbaijan that “utilized thousands of inauthentic harass the opposition” and defend the country’s governing New Azerbaijani Party by working with the Party’s Youth Union. 
According to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security: “This network appeared to engage individuals in Azerbaijan to manage pages with the sole purpose of leaving supportive and critical commentary on pages of international and local media, public figures including opposition, and the ruling party of Azerbaijan, to create a perception of widespread criticism of some views and widespread support of others.” Pro-Azerbaijani comments on social media were tagged with #stopArmenianterrorism, #StopArmenianAggression, #ArmeniaKillsCivilians, #DontBelieveArmenia, #ArmeniaKillsChildren, #PrayforGanja, #StopArmenianLies, or #TerroristArmenia. Research reveals a state-funded cyber army supporting Azerbaijan’s false claims. 
Online propagandists also harass defenders of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The American rapper Cardi B and Elton John were attacked for supporting the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. Cardi B admitted that “a lot of people from Azerbaijan” wrote to her and used the hashtag #CardiBSupportsTerrorism on social media. 
US academics and journalists are also bullied. The Federation of Turkish American Associations has been sending prominent intellectuals and journalists threatening letters. They accuse them of being “literal murderer[s]” and threaten to expose them as Islamophobes and “racial supremacist[s].”
Azerbaijan and Turkey scorn journalistic freedom. On October 3, Azerbaijan issued a press release about foreign journalists in Nagorno-Karabakh: “We again call on journalists to avoid visiting the temporarily occupied territories of Azerbaijan, thus not giving an opportunity to Armenia to exploit them.” This statement about removing journalists from the war zone under the pretext of protection is convenient for Azerbaijan. 
Azerbaijan has a well documented disdain for the truth. It is ranked 168th out of 180 countries by Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without Borders) in their annual World Press Freedom Index
In an effort to be even-handed, international media presents the views of both “sides” when covering Nagorno-Karabakh. Giving both sides equal voice makes the media an accomplice to ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Disinformation also hinders diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed.
Lisa Gulesserian is Preceptor on Armenian Language & Culture at Harvard University and David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University.