Covering Nagorno-Karabakh war is getting increasingly dangerous and complex for reporters
As conditions continue to worsen for journalists covering the fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on both parties to guarantee the safety of media personnel and to not target them.
The conditions for reporters have been deteriorating steadily ever since the start of the conflict on 27 September in this separatist region, which is inhabited mostly by Armenians but is located in Azerbaijani territory.
Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed republic’s capital, to which access has been partially cut, is being subjected to regular bombardment. According to the Armenian foreign ministry and to reporters who are there, around 80 journalists, half of them international, are currently in the region. However, the worsening situation on the ground has curtailed their freedom of movement and some have chosen to leave.
At least seven journalists have so far been injured, including the French reporter Allan Kaval and photographer Rafael Yaghobzadeh. The Russian journalist Yuri Kotenok was badly injured during the shelling of Shushi, a historic town 15 km south of Stepanakert. Others have narrowly escaped being injured.
In the latest alarming incident, a group of reporters wearing bullet-proof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving Martuni, a town 40 km east of Stepanakert, on 27 October.
Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the UK’s Byline Times, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a US broadcaster, and a US crew sent by the Armenian online media Civilnet.am told RSF they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones although they were in cars marked “Press” and there were no military objectives in the area.
“The lives of reporters, who are essential witnesses of acts of war, must not be deliberately endangered by the opposing forces,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“We remind them of the resolution that the UN Security Council adopted in December 2015, condemning all abuses and violations against journalists in armed conflict situations. Deliberately firing at journalists is a flagrant violation of international law. Military operations must not endanger clearly identified journalists. The authorities on both sides also have a duty to conduct investigations into all serious incidents involving journalists.”
Two countries under martial law
Aside from the security problems, the work of journalists has also been made more complicated by the declaration of martial law in both Armenia and Azerbaijan at the end of September.
In Azerbaijan, led by an authoritarian ruler, President Ilham Aliyev, Internet restrictions and censorship have increased. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are now blocked although they are essential for the few independent media trying to publish information. Foreign reporters covering the conflict cannot circulate freely. Furthermore, reporters who enter Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia are liable to find themselves on the blacklist that the Azerbaijani authorities have been publishing since 2013, which already has no fewer than 130 journalists.
In Armenia, a decree adopted on 8 October bans the publishing of information critical of the government, civil servants and local administrations. It exposes media to the possibility of heavy fines, freezing of assets and deletion of online content. The same day, the foreign ministry rescinded the accreditation of Ilya Azar, the correspondent of the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta – officially for administrative reasons but the ministry cited an article it did not like.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan led to an earlier war at the start of the 1990s. Azerbaijan is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Armenia is ranked 61st.