Shusha hosts the world, yet attracts brickbats: Why?
Success, critique and more
ANALYTICS 26 July 2023 - 13:19
Had the Shusha Global Media Forum, held on 21-23 July, failed in its purpose, Azerbaijan’s traditional detractors would have enjoyed schadenfreude with chortling, unmitigated glee. Since it has proven to be an astounding achievement in many respects, they have resorted to the menial chores of lambasting Baku with clapped-out accusations, also levying these against the delegates from 49 countries on account of their allegedly unseemly attendance.
To comprehend the uproar this occasion in Shusha caused in Armenia, within the separatists in Karabakh, besotted social media vigilantes with readily employable clickbait lines at their disposal, international media organisations predisposed to be habitually beastly to most aspects related to Azerbaijan, the Paris-headquartered Reporters without Borders (RWB) being the most indignant, one should appreciate what the Forum has achieved and how its success does not square with that which those visibly perturbed would have liked the world to believe.
The conceptual construct of the Forum was centred around one powerful message: Azerbaijan is willing to be receptive to the most recent media innovations and trends and is capable of being a venue for a global debate on these, with Shusha being chosen deliberately with an eye to further furnishing the city’s image as the nation’s cultural-intellectual capital, open to the world.
Participants of the global media forum in Shusha
Indeed, there was a clear intention and carefully-drawn plan underpinning the whole affair. Baku wanted everyone to see its augmented embracing of the spirit of our contemporary age. “New Media in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a theme around which all the panel discussions revolved - focused on some of the most pertinent questions facing the profession today, including the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), its impact on modern journalism, emergent new tools in the field, media management and consumption trends.
When Hikmet Hajiyev, Assistant to President Ilham Aliyev, commenced his opening remarks with reference to ChatGPT on the second day of the Forum, prior to the first penal discussion, all those in attendance knew they were in presence of something cutting-edge and inherently relevant, rather than being a mere perfunctory international jamboree.
Naturally, the choice of Shusha as a venue for the occasion had a reason. Azerbaijan also wanted to show the outside world its drive to rebuild the city, whilst preserving its original contours and to witness the destruction enacted during the illegal Armenian occupation, enabling the attendees to see this for themselves.
Gates of the Shusha city
The rebirth of a liberated Shusha and Azerbaijan’s capacity to organise an occasion of elevated standards, facilitating in-depth uninhibited discussions in the field of the media and communications, were ingrained in the essence of the Forum.
But not everything observed appeared to be entirely planned. There was an element of surprise associated with President Ilham Aliyev’s Q&A session. It was only whilst on a plane from Baku to Shusha, that most of the attendees, including myself, heard that the Azerbaijani leader would be present on the first day of the forum - on 21 July, contrary to the initial expectation that he would briefly join the guests on the succeeding day, giving a brief speech and then leaving
President Aliyev’s nonchalance in dealing with enquiries from foreign and local journalists on a plethora of subjects, including the latest developments in the inexorable Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process and broader geopolitical affairs, combined with his general multilingual affability, added to the overall plausibility.
As soon as the Forum kicked off, or even slightly before, there were sanctimonious tweets from Armenian media representatives and social network users, accusing the attendees of closing their eyes to the “plight of Artsakh” and calling them to leave Shusha. Altogether, 11 Armenian journalism organisations drew up a petition voicing the same sentiments. Thankfully their remonstrations fell on deaf ears.
A welcoming board at the Fuzuli International Airport, Azerbaijan
The clarion call of the malcontents was clear: it is immoral to hold such an event in Shusha, whilst in nearby Khankandi, Armenians are being “suffocated” by “Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Road”. In fact, the situation in Karabakh needs to be rectified, and the attendees of the next edition of the Forum should be able to freely visit the rest of the region. The point is that such an eventuality can only be ensured once Baku regains complete control of the area, ensuring full security guarantees for such a trip - a regrettable, yet unsurprising, omission from the critics’ pleas.
The question of representation
Another line of criticism was that the Forum was insufficiently representative, with Reporters without Borders claiming, in a tweet posted on 24 July, “independent media and journalists have been kept away from the event”. They also continued by denouncing “the limitless hypocrisy of Ilham Aliyev’s regime”.
The language employed is indeed pejorative, to put it mildly, and unworthy of a reputable Parisian entity. Such a vernacular is designed to present preconceived ideas as stubborn facts. As to the level of representation, the Forum was fairly reflective of the wide spectrum of Azerbaijani media, with 150 foreign guests, including those from Forbes, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and some international non-governmental organisations with no particular sympathy for Azerbaijani, ascribing to it a global dimension.
President Ilham Aliyev and the attendees of the global media forum in Shusha
Sceptics were in abundance. For instance, Clive Marshall, the CEO of the UK’s PA Media Group, a panellist at a session covering the issues related to combating disinformation, shared his views on modern media consumptions trends and, in a conversation with myself whilst on the Jidir Duzu, posed many questions around the situation on the Lachin Road, the reasons underpinning Azerbaijan’s determination to change the way humanitarian supplies are delivered to Khankendi, and the peace prospects between Baku and Yerevan, displaying aloofness and eagerness to learn and inform his thinking, simultaneously carefully guarding himself against any form of bias that my reflections could induce. In chats with many other delegates, I discerned the self-same pattern.
Online abuse against Forum participants
Then, of course, there was online harassment and attacks against the forum participants, with Anelise Borges of Euronews being the first victim. In a conversation with myself, Maria Ramos, International News Presenter of TRT World, was visibly shaken by the abusive messages she had received, some of which regrettably entailed sexual content, to boot. They were dozens of others in the same situation.
Under no circumstances should bullying of any form should be tolerated, not least when committed against those who have done nothing apart from doing what was no more than attending a world-class occasion on the sovereign territory of a nation with emboldening ambitions.
If we return to the question as to why the gathering has caused such furore, the answer could be found in the conflict between its key message and its deleterious impact, militating against those hellbent on disparaging Azerbaijan’s attempts to restore its de facto sovereignty over the part of Karabakh populated by Armenians and to conclude a peace deal with Armenia, being contemptuous of Baku’s nascent pretension to be a venue for a world-class debate on the media. After all, it is all very simple, not rocket science in any conceivable sense.
It is quite often the case that the scale of a success defines its detractors’ disgruntlement. The Shusha Global Media Forum was an unprecedentedly serious achievement by Azerbaijani standards, and a noteworthy occasion to contemplate for those across the globe keeping a beady eye on the South Caucasus. As Neil Watson, a British journalist, commented: “The Forum will go down in history for its scope, timing and location, which cements Azerbaijan’s provenance over Armenia in the eyes of the world’s media.”
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