Azerbaijan on BuzzFeed

Earlier in the semester I wrote a blog post about an investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who was jailed (and is still currently in jail) after a series of news pieces revealing the shady deals that surround President Aliyev’s family. Surprisingly, Buzzfeed had coverage of the story when it broke, and it’s a pretty thorough piece. The author, Max Seddon, is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in Kiev who has written almost 300 pieces for Buzzfeed, several about Azerbaijan. The article follows the whole backstory of Ismayilova, detailing the governments constant attacks against her: from Khadija’s impact on Azeri policy concerning government documents, to her blackmail and public humiliation, and the constant legislative pressures encouraging her to stop her writing. It paints a pretty good picture of the Azeri government’s desire to shut her down no matter what measures they have to take. In addition to the narrative tone of the article, the visuals also add a nice touch. Other components of the piece include witness testimony from those who knew Ismayilova or her work, both American and Azeri, and hyperlinks to many of the details of the backstory if readers want to find out more.

A screenshot of the story about Khadija Ismayilova and the implications her arrest has on journalism and free speech in Azerbaijan.

A screenshot of the story about Khadija Ismayilova and the implications her arrest has on journalism and free speech in Azerbaijan.

This being said, I think that this article has a lot of similarities with elements of traditional media, albeit more informal and interactive. Due to the nature of the story, the “narrative-like” tone of the article lends itself to be slightly more effective than traditional media in assisting the reader in understanding the ridiculous measures that the Azeri government will take in keeping its name untarnished. Whereas a news article would have more reported the news of her imprisonment and the events leading up to it, Seddon is able to convey a more stronger message with analysis within a more relaxed journalistic frame. However, since the level of accountability in traditional media is much higher than the level of accountability in web-based media, Seddon does lose some of his impartiality as his narrative becomes quite critical of the Azeri government. Although not false, some of Seddon’s wording doesn’t lend the reader to form their opinion on the matter. One of his first lines reads:

“Ismayilova’s jailing may be the nail in the coffin for this small, mostly Muslim post-Soviet country’s civil society movement, which has been driven underground this year by a wave of repressive laws and arrests on spurious charges.”

While I agree with that statement, is doesn’t mimic the impartiality often seen in newspapers such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, but is certainly more effective in getting the reader to see the climate for journalists in Azerbaijan.

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Social Media and Journalism in Azerbaijan

Access to social media sites in Azerbaijan is unrestricted, and Facebook is by far the most popular site, with over 1.4 million people in Azerbaijan active. However, this freedom comes with a price, as the government has implemented measures that encourage users, especially younger generations, to impose self-censorship and avoid the site altogether. This article, claiming that social media leads to “mental problems”, was published four days prior to a “11 March Great People’s Day” activism event organized through Facebook. Another article, from Xerxeber.com, details “internet addiction” as a “plague of the twenty-first century”. Apparently, some universities have even warned students with threats of bad grades or detentions if they participate in political activism via social media (but these claims have yet to be confirmed). Additionally, there are countless instances of the government using activists’ Facebook posts as evidence in order convict them of crimes.

This rather unconvincing government propaganda hasn’t had much effect though, because even in the face of hard government repression, activists still use social media to organize political demonstrations and get information of government corruption out in the open. On January 19, 2013, hackers from Anonymous obtained and released 1.7 GB worth of documents from the Special State Protection Service of Azerbaijan, posting the material as images on Imgur, a social media photo site, after which the entire platform was temporarily blocked for users in Azerbaijan. [x x] That same month, a rally was organized through through the Facebook page “Əsgər Ölumlərinə SON” and held in Baku to protest against the death of military conscript Ceyhun Qubadov. Kadija Ismaliyova, arguably one of the most famous investigative (and now imprisoned) reporters, published a note following the event, revealing that the “police applied excessive use of force and arbitrarily detained” a group of journalists including Ismayilova. [x]

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 9.00.08 PM

Therefore, despite the governments to stifle the people’s voices, both citizens and journalists use social media as a way to share opinions and information that may not make it out in forms of traditional media.

Press Freedom in the US

Although Obama is quoted saying “Transparency and rule of law will be one of the touchstones of this presidency”, he has fallen extremely short in delivering this promise, and in fact can be accused of having one of the most non-transparent administrations this country has seen in a long time, especially for journalists.

Anyone who is active on some form of social media can attest to Obama’s effective use of using platforms like Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Facebook to keep people informed and engaged regarding his policies. Check out his most recent “celeb appearance” on twitter:

It would make sense that Obama’s use of the these websites would translate to a high level of support for the media and press freedom, yet in reality this is not the case.

According to Freedom House, the United States is ranked free in both internet and press, which seems reassuring, but when placed on the World Press Freedom Index, the US ranks a disappointing 49 out of 140 countries, down three places from last year. Surprised? I was.

The reality of 9/11 and the War on Terror caused a major divide between the need to protect national security and the need to protect the freedom of the press. Prosecution of those responsible for leaks of alleged government secrets now have precedence over the Free Press Clause of the First Amendment, or the people’s “right to inform and be informed”.

So how exactly has the Obama Administration managed to close themselves off from the press without the public catching wind?

Primarily, the Obama administration has been going after the sources rather than pursuing the journalists themselves.

The Espionage Act of 1917 states that it’s purpose is: “To convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies.” Despite this, It has been used by Obama in response to leaks of sensitive information to the press to prosecute several former government whistleblowers. Although the original purpose seems noble, current day it is being used to undermine the work of the press and threatens the valuable sources that journalists use.

One of the more famous example is Chelsey Manning, who was convicted in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents, cables, and videos/images to Wikileaks and other associated websites. She is now serving

Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning

35 years in a maximum-security prison. Extreme consequences such as these, for leaking information to the press demonstrates how vulnerable whistleblowers are in the U.S., and it has become harder to journalists to find sources for stories because of this “clamp-down” on security.

In addition to the already depressing outlook for American journalists, according to the AP, the Obama Administration has actually set a record for withholding government files under the Freedom of Information Act. Despite facing a backlog of unanswered requests of more than 200,000 (up 55% from last year), the administration still cut 375 full-time employees whose job was to look for records. Even when they do respond to requests, 39% are censored and the average time it took to respond to a request ranged from a day to 2.5 years.

It seems like the “most transparent” administration has a lot to hide.

Threats to the Security of the Freedom of the Press

Despite outrage over the discovery that the U.S. Department of Justice had been secretly collecting phone records for a number of reporters working for Associated Press and Fox News in 2012, the information acquired from the wiretapping was used to send a former FBI-agent to prison for a lengthy stay.

Donald Sachtleben, a former FBI agent and contractor, agreed to serve 43 months in prison, after disclosing to the AP information regarding a terrorist plot in Yemen. Sachtleben was only able to be identified after targeting journalists with secret subpoenas for their communication records and monitoring incoming and outgoing calls. Sachtleben’s case was the eighth leak-related prosecution under the Obama administration. More recently, a ninth prosecution also resulted resulted in jailtime for ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who leaked top secret government information to a New York Times reporter. Compared to only three such cases pursued by all other past presidents, the increased pressure placed on journalists and their sources becomes clear.

David Schulz, a lawyer for the AP described the DOJ’s actions:

“It was a very large number of records that were obtained, including phone records from Hartford, New York, Washington, from the U.S. House of Representatives and elsewhere where AP has bureaus. It included home and cellphone numbers from a number of AP reporters.” [x]

The White House’s aggressive stance on punishing those who leak “government secrets” seriously threatens the fundamental freedom of the press to gather news.

Attorney General Eric Holder, the face of the Obama Administration's crackdown on journalists and their sources.

Attorney General Eric Holder, the face of the Obama Administration’s crackdown on journalists and their sources.

Taking all this into consideration, Attorney General Eric Holder’s defense of the administration’s newest actions seem quite ironic:

“As this verdict proves, it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists’ ability to do their jobs.” [x]

Wikileaks in Azerbaijan

Wikileaks documents reveal diplomat’s scathing comments about Azerbaijani first lady and uncover the extent to which the presidents extended family holds control over the country.

At the end of 2009, Wikileaks released two cables sent from the Secretary of State that read:

WASHINGTON ANALYSTS ARE CLOSELY FOLLOWING DEVELOPMENTS RELATED TO THE AZERI GOVERNMENT AND WOULD APPRECIATE ANY INFORMATION POST CAN PROVIDE ON RELATIONSHIPS OF KEY NATIONAL POLITICAL FIGURES WITH PRESIDENT ILHAM ALIYEV, AS TIME AND RESOURCES PERMIT. SPECIFICALLY OF INTEREST ARE ANY INSIGHTS INTO THE INTER-RELATIONSHIPS AND PERSONAL/BUSINESS RIVALRIES OR ALLIANCES OF TOP AZERI OFFICIALS, THE PLANS OF THE ALIYEV ADMINISTRATION FOR AZERBAIJAN AND PLANS FOR THEIR OWN POLITICAL FUTURES, ESPECIALLY IF ENERGY PROFITS BEGIN TO WANE AND/OR PROBLEMS ARISE IN THE REGION WITH RUSSIA, IRAN, OR ARMENIA.

Following this, another was sent out regarding President Aliyev’s family, with special interest on his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva.

The reported purpose was to “inform policymakers” on key developments in the Azeri government by keeping tabs on the Aliyev family. The concern was that Aliyev could shuffle around top officials, cabinet membets, and regional governors to better suit his needs. Accordingly, this called for a need to understand the general opinions and attitudes that prevailed among members of the government on a wide range of topics. (You can read the original cables here and here.)

But how successful was this?

Although the the results of this “call for information” haven’t been publicized, a report titled: “Who Owns What?”, split into two parts, was published to Wikileaks. The report detailed the startlingly large power net cast by President Aliyev’s family and also contained quite interesting comments regarding Azerbaijan’s first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva.

The report mentions the first lady’s involvement in managing the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and organization founded on charitable works. Despite the seemingly positive nature of the organization, the report claims that it is non-transparent in its financials, and most of the money is spent on educational propaganda, “geared towards efforts to explain Azerbaijan‘s side of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

My personal favorite part of the report comes towards the end, when the author has decided to provide a scathing review of the first lady’s fashion choices:

The Pashayev women are known to be fashion-conscious and daring, far more so than the average woman in majority- Muslim Azerbaijan. First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world (reftel). On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression. The First Lady and her two daughters hosted Second Lady Lynne Cheney for dinner in September 2008. Prior to the Second Lady’s arrival, while the three ladies were waiting for Mrs. Cheney’s car, one Secret Service agent asked “which one of those is the mother?” Emboffs and White House staff studied the three for several moments, and then Emboff said, “Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.”

I doubt this report had any major impacts on U.S.-Azerbaijiani relations, as there is already a good amount of tension, but it does serve to reveal the less-than-diplomatic way some officials regards their international counterparts.

Both parts of the report can be found here and here. Additionally, The Guardian published a story profiling the report.

The Struggle of Citizen Journalism

ASSIGNMENT: Write a 300-word blog providing the context for your country: do citizen journalists exist there? How is internet infrastructure and access? Is it censored? What social media tools are most popular among citizen journalists?   Mention one or two prominent or emerging voices.   If there are no citizen journalists, write a piece analyzing why.

The prevalence of citizen journalism in Azerbaijan is slim to none, and although it seems multiple pilot programs have been started, nothing has come out of it.

New forms of social media play a large role in providing a platform for citizen journalism to emerge to not only inform, but also to mobilize mass quantities of people. Sites like Facebook have the government concerned about the rising level of activism, but authorities cannot completely prevent the public from going on due to the accessible nature of social media. However, to deter people, the government uses evidence found on Facebook to arrest people. For example, the government used Facebook information to justify the arrest of eight activist members from the opposition youth group NIDA days before a Facebook-organized protest. According to former U.S. Diplomat Rebecca Vincent,

“…These eight young men appear to have been targeted in part for their online activism. Like many other young Azerbaijanis, prior to their arrest, they were all active users of social media networks, particularly Facebook. Several of the activists were administrators of the “Heydar Aliyev Page” on Facebook, which provided a forum for satirical political discussion.”[x]

In fact, in 2013, President Aliyez signed a piece of legislation that allows citizens to serve up to three years in jail for the nature of their online postings.

Yet despite this, protests, groups, and demonstrations have been organized through the ease of spread of information by social media and in early March a protest against non-combat solider deaths was related with an impressive 15,000 RSVP’ed online, with a still impressive 4,000-5,000 people showing up.[x]

Additionally, several organizations such as InterNews Azerbaijan, International Media Support and the Eurasia Partnership have adopted programs to encourage younger generations to engage in citizen journalism, but access to the results of the programs are hard to find and not readily available in English.

Note: I did manage to find one blog through the Eurasia Project that utilizes E-Media to produce unbiased pieces by both established journalists and bloggers, check it out here.

If you’d like to find out more about this issue, check out the following links:

http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2012/09/azerbaijan-free-expression/

http://www.publicdialogues.info/en/Virtual-Parallels/Development-of-Social-Networks-in-Armenia-and-Azerbaijan

Thoughts about Restrepo

Assignment: Analyze your response to the film compared to the Vanity Fair article and the photographs Tim Hetherington took of the same soldiers in the New York Times pieces above. In your view, which was the most effective in conveying the reality of conflict?  And has it changed your views on the efficacy of embedding for journalists?

In class last week, we watching the movie Restrepo to supplement our discussion about embedding journalists in war-zones and showing death in the media. I liked it and thought the film was moving and I felt that its strongest point was the authenticity of the experience of war. The movie wasn’t 100% balanced nor impartial, but this was not by fault of the filmmaker. I don’t think any movie that deals with war can be completely balanced or impartial, yet this movie was as close as it could get. Despite this, the audience is truly immersed into the reality of the conflict, and I think that it was extremely effective in achieving the directors goal:

“A lot of documentary films about war since the start of the “war on terrorism” in 2001 have had political standpoints. By stripping that out of our film, by not having a political standpoint, we ask people to be nonpartisan and experience what those soldiers experienced. As a platform to discuss war, I think that’s useful, because it doesn’t divide people. This country is already so divided about war, I think that’s a good strategy: to build a bridge to people, to get them to engage with the politics about Afghanistan, to see what we are dealing with.”[x]

I think film, relative to photographs or written stories, is the most effective way of conveying the reality of the conflict.  The film combines dialogue and actions with the process of human emotions in a way that words and photos on their own fail to achieve the complex environment of war.

A photo from Tim Heatherington's photo book, Infidel. Heatherington is also the director of Restrepo.

A photo from Tim Heatherington’s photo book, Infidel. Heatherington is also the director of Restrepo.

Maybe it’s because the movie started before I got there, but the piece that I felt most was missing from the movie was an explanation of why they were fighting. Why was that area so contended? I didn’t understand what they were doing there (besides the fact that a war was going on), so all of their actions seemed trivial. The “avalanche” mission where one soldier was killed and one was wounded was the emotional climax of the movie, but i couldn’t fully get behind it because I didn’t understand the point of risking their lives in the first place. Perhaps it requires a more in-depth historical analysis that goes beyond the limits of the movie, but it would have been a nice primer. Ironically, the filmmaker, Tim Heatherington, has a quote that sums up my biggest contention with the movie:

“We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds.” [x]

In regards to my views on efficacy on embedding for journalists, my thoughts have not changed. I stand by my opinion that embedding is effective, and Restrepo proves that when journalists who have a clear idea of what they hope to achieve and how they hope to achieve it are put in the field, embedding becomes the most useful. The filmmakers were with the soldiers for almost ten months: got to know the boys, their ways, and their stories. That time spent was indispensable in creating bonds with the men that make the film more complex than any photo or story could show.