“We are everything they are not”
The Azerbaijani authorities have been pouring millions, if not billions, of US dollars into “reputation laundering” to improve its standing in the west. Said noted that Azerbaijani authorities employed different tools, such as hiring respectable PR firms in Washington and some European capitals, and allegedly bribing some parliament members in Europe. “People like Sevinc Osmanqizi, or other journalists who live abroad and try to show to the world the real face of the Azerbaijani authorities, defeats the whole [set of] policies of the Azerbaijani authorities in creating their positive image,” she said, adding that the government perceives critical voices living outside the country as enemies they want to silence.
Osmanqizi’s YouTube channel airs daily broadcasts and call-in shows in Azerbaijani, and offers biting criticism of the government of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who is often chastised by international governments and organisations for his anti-democratic policies and imprisonment of journalists. She offers opinions not available on the government-controlled Azerbaijani media. She provides airtime to opposition figures and dissidents to whom other Azerbaijani television has been hostile for many years.
Osmanqizi is not alone.
Hebib Muntezir was nominated for a 2016 Freedom of Expression Award for his work at Meydan TV.
“Since there are no normal conditions for free and independent media to function inside the country, and the local media are under control of the government and oligarchs, no one can directly criticise the authorities. So, in the last few years, many journalists and bloggers have left the country because of the persecution and pressure against them and their families. They started to create new media abroad, so they could continue their professional work. That is why these types of exiled Azerbaijani media have been mushrooming,” said Habib Muntezir, member of the board of the Berlin-based MeydanTV YouTube channel.
Osmanqizi said she “simply cannot” broadcast from within Azerbaijan. “I would be arrested the next day. That’s a clear cut case.”
What unites nearly all YouTube-based channels broadcasting from abroad is their stance in opposition to the current Aliyev government. “You can only show one side of the story. You cannot be impartial. In order to be impartial, you would have to cover all sides of the story. But if [the officials] refuse to talk to you, your platform becomes partial and lopsided. They label you ‘opposition,’ ‘activist’ media. But, as a journalist, you might be forced into this category against your wish,” he explains, saying that even independent experts on non-political matters are afraid to speak to independent exiled media sources for fear of persecution.
These channels form a diverse tapestry of voices, and vary in audience size, length of establishment, frequency of broadcasts, and most importantly, level of professionalism. Some are headed by professional journalists like Osmanqizi, a veteran alumna of the first independent TV channel ANS, where she had for years worked side by side with Aghayev, the host of broadcasts attempting to intimidate her. After leaving ANS, she worked for the BBC in London. Her channel has around 120,000 subscribers, impressive for a country the size of Azerbaijan.
Other channels, launched by people who lack journalistic experience or education, are often merely outlets for their operators to voice criticism of the government in the form of crude and insulting insinuations and rants. Some of these have impressive audiences, as well, as people look to them as the outlet for voicing their own pent up anger and frustration.
“Nowadays in the Azerbaijani media, there are very few professional journalists. Many were originally activists, people with courage, and they gain experience on the job. Lack of formal training leads to mistakes that violate media ethics, and some unprofessional action. Pressure and fear of persecution by the government are lowering the quality of the Azerbaijani media,” Muntezir said, noting the impact of an unfree society on both sides of the camera or microphone.
“If the environment were free, if people didn’t freeze with fear whenever they saw a microphone, if citizens were not afraid to speak to media, if the government, president, and ministers talked to the free media, we would not live in a blockade state,” Muntezir said.
According to Osmanqizi, when it comes to attacks on exiled media, “the government is losing the competition” for the hearts and minds of the public. “We are everything they are not,” she said. “What they are lacking is the truth, the reality. People see themselves in our programs, they recognise their problems, which is not the case with government-sponsored TV programs. That is why they tune into our channel.”
In her view, the choice between traditional and online media is really a choice between information and disinformation, and the latter is very easy to identify, she said. “You cannot fool anyone and make them believe that Real TV or [state broadcaster] AzTV is real news. People only watch them when they lose their remote control,” Osmanqizi adds, laughing.
The new internet-based TV channels offer the chance for the people to express their own opinions, and to hear the voices of average citizens they identify with. “They participate,” she explains. “Unfortunately, this is not something that can be done from inside Azerbaijan.”
Viewers are calling from inside the country for better journalism, and sometimes their support for the hosts of foreign-based channels speaking truth to power may cost them their freedom. Osmanqizi said this fate befell her viewer, Elzamin Salayev, after he recorded a video appeal condemning Aghayev’s campaign against her. According to Osmanqizi, he was given a fifteen day prison sentence for condemning Aghayev and questioning his morals for threatening to broadcast her intimate footage.