By Nay Alhelou, Co-Editor of RightsViews and MA Candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University.
Four weeks on, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh continues despite a third ceasefire agreement that was supposed to take effect on October 26. In the meantime, a parallel war – a war of (mis)information – finally starts to make headlines.
Over the past two weeks, both academics and journalists reported on the ways in which Azerbaijan has been using its financial power to set the tone of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Academics at Harvard University and Columbia University pointed out that Azerbaijan has been investing in lobbying firms and using social media ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation in the aim of getting the public’s support. For example, Azerbaijani Telegram channel “The Tagiev” claimed that videos showing the capture and execution of two Armenian soldiers were staged, even though originally the channel itself posted them and identified them as real. However, an investigation by Bellingcat found that the videos were indeed factual, unlike the claims made by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. Similarly, an Armenian Weekly journalist wrote an in-depth piece detailing different examples of propaganda articles brought to audiences by Azerbaijani-paid PR firms.
As important as these and similar articles are, they have yet to make it to the mainstream. As such, the potential fact-checks and context they provide may go unnoticed. Unless you happen to be an avid reader of a university’s newsletter, you just might miss crucial pieces of information.
However, the so-called mainstream media are not entirely oblivious to Azerbaijan’s financial powers and how they can impact not just the conflict itself, but also how the international community views it.
Indeed, media are well aware of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves and the economic power – or at least advantages – these may bring to the country. Be it the ability to misinform the public or gain the sympathy of world powers, the less advantageous impacts of Azerbaijan’s economy tend to be ignored, or at best mentioned ‘en passant.’
For example, on October 18, The New York Times stated matter-of-factly that “Azerbaijan, an oil and gas hub on the Caspian Sea, has deployed superior firepower, using advanced drones and artillery systems it buys from Israel, Turkey and Russia.” While such a statement alludes to the benefits of a strong oil and gas reserve, it falls short from providing an in-depth analysis of said benefits. Readers are then left without any clear understanding of the economic and political powers that are at play and that may be impacting the reaction of the international community (or lack thereof) vis-à-vis the conflict and its resolution.
Again, in another article that the NYT claims would help readers “understand the conflict,” there is no mention of the economic disparities between the two warring sides at all. Even with their economies combined, the GDP of Nagorno-Karabakh (USD 713 million in 2019) and that of Armenia (USD 13.6 billion in 2019) are still less than half the GDP of Azerbaijan alone, which stood at USD 48 billion in 2019. Whether an omission of neglect or intent, the result remains the same: key context is missing.
Other outlets are not as oblivious to the power that comes with money. In an Arabic opinion piece published in “The New Arab” – a pan-Arab outlet based in the UK – Ammar Dayoub plainly warns that the difference between Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s economic resources will directly impact the outcome of the conflict. He argues that “Azerbaijan’s power stems from the fact it was armed with energy revenue, after 1994, from Russia, Turkey and Israel” and with Armenia’s scarcity of resources, Nagorno-Karabakh will be unable to stand against “the regionally supported attack.”
Even in cases where journalists point out the lies or half-truths spread by the warring countries, a human rights lens seems to be missing. In particular, the mainstream media are neglecting the fact that the right to information – which is an integral part of the freedom of expression – is continuously under threat.
To be sure, this right does not guarantee that people will get accurate information per se. However, it can be argued that the spread of misinformation and the exclusion of key data restricts the audience’s right to access information. As a result, public opinion about the conflict as well as peace resolution efforts may be negatively impacted, if not skewed to the benefit of the richer country.
Under international humanitarian law, all sides involved in a conflict are subject to equal obligations and have equal rights. This principle ensures that no side can claim that it is fighting a ‘just’ war in the hopes of getting away with everything it does on the battleground.
This principle, however, does not extend beyond the battlefield, where anyone seems to be able to claim anything from the justness of the war to the facts of the war and its context.
Indeed, when a military war turns into one of information, there seems to be only one rule: ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune.’ That is, until we call it out.