Onnik Krikorian, a British journalist based in Armenia, has had a first-hand look at the ways in which journalism has been shaped by the growth of online media. In addition to Caucasian Knot, he is the Caucasus regional editor for Global Voices, an international nonprofit dedicated to increasing the exposure of citizen media. He also runs Conflict Voices, a site that aims to erode longstanding communication barriers between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Through a combination of blogs, interviews and photography the site provides an unusual range of perspectives on a highly contentious topic.
Q: First, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your evolution as a journalist–what you first started out covering, and how you got interested in the Caucasus and ended up living in and working from Yerevan.
A: I first started out working in a regional newspaper, The Bristol Evening Post, in around 1990 although the work was pretty much just traditional cut and paste for page layout and sub-editing. However, in late 1993 or early 1994, I can’t remember now, I moved to London and managed to find a job at The Independent. I was always more interested in photojournalism than journalism and was working with the picture desk. This also gave me the opportunity to travel to Nagorno Karabakh at the end of the summer of 1994 to document the ceasefire signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan a few months earlier.
However, back in the U.K., I started to document the Kurdish community and, when The Independent was bought out and faced an uncertain future, I started to work as a freelancer. This gave me more freedom to undertake personal projects, especially on the Kurds in Turkey. While I also worked on page layout and editing at The Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) on a part-time basis, this meant that I could also work on such issues and allowed me much flexibility. For example, in 1997 I traveled to Turkey with a British journalist to document Novruz (New Year) there.
It was the first time that the Turkish authorities were allowing the Kurds to celebrate the holiday after previous celebrations had resulted in a massacre a few years earlier. With Nick writing and myself photographing, we produced quite a few pieces for newspapers such as The Scotsman and magazines such as New Internationalist. It also meant I started working closely with the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) in London who sent a BBC journalist to Azerbaijan and myself to Armenia in 1998 to research a report on Kurdish minorities in the two countries.
It was during this visit that I attended a UNDP conference on national minorities in Armenia and also in a job offer with the UN in Armenia. As my focus was more and more on online media, still in its infancy, but showing signs that it would eventually explode, the work involved using the Internet to disseminate alternative streams of information and promote its use by journalists in Armenia. However, I would later return to traditional journalism by working contracts as a stringer for Fox News, Transitions Online and EurasiaNet. I also wrote and photographed for other publications such as the Los Angeles Times and New Internationalist.
I’ve also been fixing for the BBC, Al Jazeera English, The Wall Street Journal, The National and most recently the National Geographic Channel.
Q: How has blogging and online activity featured in your overall career as a journalist?
A: Although I’ve had a web site since 1994, I was initially skeptical about blogging, especially as it was being used up until about 2004 to pump out rose-tinted stories about Armenia, particularly from Diasporan Armenians living in Yerevan. However, in 2005 a few alternative sites started to materialize and I followed suit. To be honest, though, my main interest in blogging was more to do with the platforms representing a freely available content management system for me to post stories and photographs online. Towards the end of the year, however, I was invited to attend the first open Global Voices Summit.
For those that don’t know, Global Voices is a major citizen media site which was founded at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society by Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher, and Rebecca MacKinnon, for Bureau Chief for CNN in Beijing and Tokyo. One of the first funders was Reuters and the Summit was held at their headquarters in London. It was obvious that new and traditional media were going to somehow converge, especially as more and more media outlets were facing cutbacks in their finances, particularly for foreign news.
In countries such as Armenia, it also meant alternative streams of news and information would slowly start to emerge to counter what was effectively state propaganda. This pretty much came to a head in March 2008 when all media outlets were censored and under government control following post-election clashes which left 10 people dead. The Internet became the new Samizdat although there was as much opposition propaganda and misinformation perhaps as alternative, verified news with fact-checking. Nevertheless, there were also some very good, professional blogs which emerged.
Q: What is the online community like for bloggers in the Caucasus? And what is the relationship like between foreign versus native bloggers reporting on the area?
A: Firstly, it has to be said that there are not so many bloggers in the region. Internet penetration remains quite low as do connection speeds, and prices are high compared to the West. On the other hand, Facebook has given many others the ability to connect online with many users effectively using it as a blogging system albeit in a closed network. Even so, use is quite low compared to the population. For example, Armenia has a population of around 3.2 million people, but only 120,000 use Facebook. Even so, international donors see the Internet as the only way to break the State monopoly on news and information with USAID pumping $4 million into Armenia for this purpose.
Regarding relations between local and foreign bloggers, I think it’s fairly healthy. This is particularly true and probably natural given the existence of a large Armenian Diaspora. Although the first Diaspora blogs were mainly propaganda based, that has since changed with some very good blogs coming out of Los Angeles and London. Indeed, I’d say that two blogs in particular — Ianyan and Unzipped — represent what the Armenian media could be in a more democratic environment. However, one problem is that they are in English. Armenian-language blogs are increasing in number, but most blogs in general just regurgitate and mirror the existing media — government and opposition alike.
Q: I know you’ve done a lot of work on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. How have people responded? And what do you do to recruit people for a project like this?
A: This is one area that I’m particularly happy with, albeit with a certain caveat. I’ve been covering the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh since 1994 and also assisted Thomas de Waal with his excellent book, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. However, one of the main breakthroughs came because of Global Voices. As Caucasus Editor for the site I needed to make contact with bloggers from Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, even as a British citizen, my Armenian name means I can’t visit Azerbaijan. So, in June 2008 I traveled to Georgia to attend a BarCamp.
Despite there being no open communication means available to people in Armenia and Azerbaijan, there was Facebook and chat programs so I stayed in contact with those Azerbaijanis I met in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It naturally grew from there and I made more and more contacts with Azerbaijani bloggers. Using a combination of Facebook, Skype and later Twitter, even if I couldn’t maintain a relationship with them in person, I could online until meeting some of them in Georgia or even London, Bucharest and Washington D.C.
As for how such people were approached, in many cases they contacted me first. Then, from those connections, Facebook opened up the possibility to meet others. If before June 2008 it was impossible for me to be in daily contact with Azerbaijanis, I can now be with many. This work, and the project which came out of these connections, also resulted in other Armenians making contact across the contact line with their counterparts in Azerbaijan. It’s not a huge number in the scheme of things, but it is unprecedented in the area of cross-border communication between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Q: Finally, do you have any advice for helping people viewing developments in the Caucasus from afar on how to both take advantage and filter through the multitude of personal prospectives now accessable through blogs?
A: I think this is a very important question, and I’ve already mentioned how opposition blogs were also as much about propaganda and misinformation although it is at a much lower level than the official government channels. This is also true when it comes to online mention of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. However, I think key here is to think in the same way as people should when it comes to traditional news. That is to access multiple sources whenever possible. Indeed, if a major story does seemingly emerge on a blog, sure as hell it’s going to appear somewhere else. For example, there are opposition media outlets online and there are international media stringers for Reuters, AFP etc here.
Most importantly, however, is to assess bloggers and other sources of information and news on Facebook or Twitter over time. In that way, you can work out whether a blog or social media account is reliable or not. The very nature of such mediums also mean you can engage the person responsible with questions or simple communication in order to work out what makes them tick. In most cases, whenever possible, I also try to personally meet up with such people as well. Simply put, it is not wise to automatically trust something posted online. However, eventually it becomes obvious which sources are reliable and which are not. Even retractions or corrections made are a good indicator.
Ultimately, though, I still believe that plurality in terms of information sources is key. Combined with the traditional international media it becomes quite easy to work out which are the best sources and which are not. Of course, as I said before, with Internet penetration low, the main problem still remains. That is, those blogging are a minority and not necessarily representative of the general population. In many cases they are first and foremost mainly English-speaking people, but more significantly either political activists or work in civil society. While this does mean their content can be very useful for a journalist, it also means it can be potentially slanted.
In a sense, that’s what my work at Global Voices is about. With authors also in Azerbaijan and Georgia, we translate and curate content from new and social media while also hopefully setting it all in its proper context.