Yesterday morning I got back from Azerbaijan, where I’ve spent the past three days with former colleagues at the Centre for Investigative Journalism. This trip was organised by the Open Society Institute, who seek to promote and develop freedom of expression in Azerbaijan.
It was an enjoyable and insightful visit, where we learned about the state of journalism in four post-Soviet countries: our host nation, Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
As we passed through a very eastern passport control, a throng of local taxi drivers beckoned us with some familiar western names: BP and HALLIBURTON. The west has certainly taken its pound of flesh from Azerbaijan in recent years.
Baku, with its graffiti-free old town, and immaculately maintained public buildings, has been converting oil into prosperity since the 19th century.
This land was once dominated by wealthy, philanthropic oligarchs, whose portraits adorn the stunning restaurant we visited on the second night of our visit. Azerbaijan is caught between two leviathans; Russia and Iran, whose influence on free expression today passes invisibly across the borders.
The motorway which took us from the airport to the centre of Baku was an uncannily smooth ride. Our host, Director of Azerbaijan’s OSI program, Rovshan Bagirov, assured us that this doesn’t come cheap, but that it represents little strain on the country’s coffers. An Azerbaijani government economist has apparently calculated that they could afford to lay a couple of millimetres of gold for the entire length of this motorway, if they saw fit. Price is no object in Azerbaijan.
In and around Baku, every inch of visible public space is backlit, side-lit, or lit from above. At night, green lights are shone on the grass, to bring out its fresh nocturnal lustre. Trees are wreathed in pretty, glowing red berries. Beautiful white buildings, unmistakably Islamic, radiate with eastern opulence. But shining a light on the affairs of the country’s powerful elites is a different matter.
Azerbaijan is not an easy place in which to practice journalism. While there are no shortage of public data to interrogate, getting the message to the masses in a country where radio and TV are heavily censored and blocked, and where distribution of newspapers and pamphlets is tightly controlled, is not easy.
Investigative journalism here is driven by broadcasting – their leading TV series is similar in form and content to PBS Frontline. Georgia has a strong post-Soviet tradition of public interest journalism, but this has been curtailed in recent years (certainly since the Rose Revolution of late 2003).
Much work is yet to be done online, where public engagement though currently small, is growing.
The OSGF Media Support Program exists to advocate transparency in the country. Their current initiatives are to support the development of independent media in the capital Tibilisi, as well as across the wider regions, and they are campaigning for a law to stop government interference in public interest journalism.
The Ukrainian OSI delegation gave us a tantalising glipmse of a holy grail in investigative journalism. The Ukranian Pravda is an online-driven, non-paywalled media outlet which finds space for a rich mix of investigative journalism, while still managing to derive a healthy profit from online advertising.
But here there is no equivalent to the BBC with which to compete, and the Ukranian media market is not exposed to the same levels of competition for its online advertising revenues from the likes of Craigslist or Gumtree.
In this rapidly developing and well-resourced journalistic environment, a subversive TV format has emerged, where public figures are pranked into accounting for their public finance decisions before a live TV audience.
We then heard from Dariya Tsyrenzhapova from OSI Kazakhstan, who described a country whose oil wealth mirrors that of Azerbaijan. She told us of Gennadiy Benditsky, whose investigative work into the embezzlement of public fianances for newspaper The Vremya, has inspired much debate about the leaking of information and public transparency in news media. Here restrictive laws incite self-censorship, and Kazakhstan’s libel laws have a chilling effect on free speech which UK journalists will be able to relate to.
On Thursday afternoon we heard (all too briefly) from Emin Milli (@eminmilli), an Azerbaijani youth activist who described himself as ‘a blogger without a blog’. He talked of the 17 months he spent in an Azerbaijani prison, as a consequence of the free speech activism he helped organise on Facebook. His dignity, and the good humour with which he shared these experiences were humbling, and genuinely inspiring.
I’d like to extend special thanks to Rovshan, whose hospitality and insights into life in Azerbaijan have left a lasting impression. I’d also like to thank Fidan Bagirova, who organised and moderated this event with aplomb.