Two sides of the story by Heydar Mirza*

Every day we are exposed to political, social and scientific articles that argue »»

Every day we are exposed to political, social and scientific articles that argue strongly for a particular stance, or even stories that express one side’s position. This type of partisan news reporting results in increased polarization through the mechanism of biased assimilation; that is, groups readily accept evidence that seems to support their position, while material that could threaten or undermine their standpoint is subjected to critical scrutiny.

In this respect, bias in the media does not provide a view of both sides of the story, but rather “opposite sides of the story.” This is most problematic when the international media reports as an outsider on a bilateral conflict, or when it reports on the internal politics of another country.

Much has been written on the Azerbaijan-Armenia Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- for example, a Google search offers over 1 million unique references. But here it is not simply the volume of material that is the issue; the interpretation of reports is of primary importance. Azerbaijani scholar Rauf Garagozov in his paper “The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict from the Postmodernist Perspective: Cultural Grounds for Biased Interpretations” (published this year in Caucasus and Globalization) examines biased interpretations and their impact on conflict resolution. He uses the example of the BBC Russian Service’s report “Karabakh: Two Versions of the Story,” alleging that while the report claims to be neutral, it demonstrates the same bias (conscious or unconscious) that is inherent in the majority of past and current coverage of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Garagozov’s conclusion makes clear his anxiety about this issue: “The report illuminates only one side of the story, but it is the reporter’s story that readers will read as history.” In this type of “dialogue,” conflict parties are likely to hear many unflattering stories about one other. But only a truly neutral attitude can create a space for genuine dialogue (a space where journalists and international organizations claiming impartiality should not interfere in conflicts, but seek to help each side). We can only hope that the mutual hate and mistrust between the parties that the author talks about at the end of his report will be overcome.

The BBC is not the first news source to present biased information. Recently, the well-known magazine The Economist (“Conflict on ice,” Nov. 12) attempted to describe the issues surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, for true neutrality, readers would expect the author to have visited the settlements of internally displaced people and refugees in Azerbaijan, in order to evaluate the current conditions. Instead, the magazine’s depiction of the conflict’s aftermath was shaped by a single visit to Khankendi (which it called “Stepanakert,” the Armenian name). This portrayal confuses readers. The Armenian occupation has resulted in the displacement of approximately 1 million Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition, the political aspect of such partisan reportage also needs to be considered. Over recent days, the local media has covered the Azerbaijani government’s discomfort with articles published in the UK press. The editor-in-chief of Azerbaijan’s 1news Agency, Rahman Hajiyev, referred to “perfidious Albion” in his article on the British press. He asked, “When reading articles in British newspapers that distort the political situation in Azerbaijan by exaggerating single cases of detention of persons charged with criminal law offences (either due to ignorance of the details, or deliberately), the real question is -- who are they to judge us?”

British Petroleum owns the largest shares in Azeri-Chirag–Gunashli (ACG), which is the biggest oil field in Azerbaijan, and also Shah Deniz, the largest natural gas field in the country. More importantly, the second phase of development of the giant Shah Deniz field and long-term production from the ACG lies in the near future, which will be advantageous for British companies. In addition, different British media outlets say different things when discussing domestic issues. In this respect, the public does not understand what lies behind the perceived partisanship, or whether political bias is at play.

Finally, in terms of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s domestic situation, the British media is trying to adopt a stance that sheds light on the situation. But the examples mentioned above demonstrate their bias and lack of neutrality. The question now is: Who wants to damage UK-Azerbaijani relations, and if the Azerbaijani government uses its resources to protect its national interests, what will be the impact on bilateral relations? And what will be the reaction of those who pen these biased reports?


*Heydar Mirza is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

2011-12-05

Op-Ed