Last month, law enforcement in Azerbaijan launched a wave of arrests targeting gay men and transgender women. The move has provoked international outrage, but also left many wondering: Why would Azerbaijan — a country that values its international reputation — dare try such a thing, when an anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya earlier this year sparked protests around the world.
The reason may be less obvious than you think, according to Margarita Akhvlediani, editor-in-chief of the Caucasus news site JAMnews.
In early September the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed an extensive Azerbaijani money laundering scheme that funneled money to the country’s elite and even some European politicians. The current homophobic crackdown in Azerbaijan may aim “to move attention from that story to the new story,” Akhvlediani says.
While shocking abroad, the arrests have generated very little outcry in Azerbaijan. “The problem in Azerbaijan, as in any country in the Caucasus, is that society supports the government and their ideas against gay people,” she adds.
But while they may be largely united in opposition to homosexuality, the people of the Caucasus are otherwise highly divided — by so-called “frozen conflicts,” political rivalries, and even Russian occupation.
JAMnews is trying to change that. The media platform has journalists in all the countries of the region and manages to get its correspondents to work together across battle lines.
“[Journalists] finally get that platform on JAMnews and many are happy with it because they have an opportunity to speak and also to learn about what in reality is happening in those places that are absolutely terra incognita for many living in those divided places,” Akhvlediani says.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Hromadske sat down with Margarita Akhvlediani to discuss Azerbaijan’s anti-gay crackdown and to learn more about how JAMnews is changing journalism in the Caucasus.
So JAM media covers the entire Caucasus and covers it in all the major languages of the Caucasus. What are the biggest challenges for independent media in the Caucasus right now?
So the first it's that money comes to the independent media from either government sources or some finance group or political group, so really no independent media in the Caucasus, at least not so many of them. When we are talking about television, I would say no independent television, including in Georgia. When we are talking about online media then it's easier because online media is supported by some international foundations or some Western governments and so in this case, it still can be like JAMnews, can claim that it is independent, not dependent on local money. But the rest of it is the main problem: money can come only from the people that would then claim that they have to control the media because they provided money.
And another problem, the third one, is that journalists working in media outlets, working in the Caucasus, they are not interested in the life of the neighbors, so the Caucasus is so much divided. Media in Armenia is interested in the events in Armenia only, and knowing nothing or providing some stereotypes or lies or just bullshit from other places of the Caucasus. It’s the same with media in Georgia or in Azerbaijan, in many other places. It's a big problem. No connections, no willingness to connect somehow to the neighbors.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
And what is JAMnews doing to change the way journalism is done in the Caucasus?
First of all, we would like to change the way people get information. And so first of all, it means fact-checking—fact-checking everything we publish. We fact check first because there are a lot of lies in the divided by wars, by conflict, by ethnic stereotypes, by many many other divides the Caucasus. It's one of them. Another we are trying to provide equal information from all the parts of the Caucasus and now it's actually, I would say, the only or maybe like just few media outlets in the Caucasus that you can go to the website and you get information about not only fully recognized countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, but also on disputed regions like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
JAMnews publishes all the major languages of the region and brings together a staff from all the different parts of the Caucasus, but, as you just said, the Caucasus is very divided. How do you get people, say from Armenia and Azerbaijan, countries which are basically at war with one another, to work together in one news service? How do you get Georgians and Abkhazians, for example, to work together? What are the challenges?
Just a challenge from the beginning to the end. Just one big challenge. So it's like several offices working in each of the parts of the Caucasus. So we have editors working for us in each of those regions that I mentioned, countries and places.
So when it's professionally reported, its data is somehow controlled by the main office of JAMnews. it means that people in all the places they get a platform where they can share how they sees the events, who they are, the people living there, what opinions they have. And so each of the communities in the Caucasus, they finally get that platform on JAMnews and many are happy with it because they have an opportunity to speak and also to learn about what in reality is happening in those places that are absolutely terra incognita for many living in those divided places. So I think that though we get a lot of very negative response and critics from our readers or our viewers but we get more and more attention because, in general, people would love to know what exactly is happening and would love to share what exactly they are thinking.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
Do you think there's a lesson in JAMnews' experience, for example, for a Ukrainian independent media or independent media really anywhere that are trying to cross divides of armed conflict or simply historical grievances? What do you think? Is there something other media can learn from JAM’s experience?
I think it can because it's very difficult for our team to work together because it's several editors who represent different societies, different ideologies, who have different opinions, opposite opinions and they still believe that information will change the world. Because the exchanging of information, of opinions, it helps to understand. Understanding leads to some maybe like resolution of conflict or of attitudes. So I think that definitely when there is conversation—open, honest and respectful from people to each other— it helps. And I think this experience of JAMnews can be absolutely obviously useful for Ukrainian media.
Recently, there has been a series of arrests of LGBT people in Azerbaijan and specifically gay men and transgender women. Why do you think the authorities in Azerbaijan are targeting the LGBT community?
Many people there and experienced journalists say it's not so much connected to gay people in Azerbaijan. But there was recently published an investigation into money laundering by the Azerbaijani government and with support of the European governments and some politicians—yo---u probably heard about it. So it was like huge news. So many now in Azerbaijan say that there are at least speculations on it that it's one of the moves of the Azerbaijan government just to move attention from that story to the new story. And a gay story always unites a nation, unfortunately, in any society in the Caucasus, not only in Azerbaijan. It’s a perfect case, I would say to bring everybody together in there, like hate or like inappropriate attention to the issue. So it's one of the explanations because definitely the issue of homosexuality is not new for Azerbaijan.
In April, Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper uncovered a rather frightening story about the detention, torture and even killing of gay men in Chechnya—probably the most authoritarian region of Russia. And since then, we have this crackdown in Azerbaijan, this past week there was actually a crackdown in Egypt against gay men which apparently is the largest since 2001. After the Novaya Gazeta story came out there was a global outcry over this and there was a lot of anger, not just in Russia—everywhere. But very little could be done except maybe to help evacuate the victims of this Chechen crackdown from Russia. Do you think that maybe the fact that the actions the Chechen authorities and basically the impunity there maybe made it acceptable to crackdown against gays in other countries?
Maybe yes of course I wouldn't say that it's not possible, it was not like a part of the events, but I wouldn't say that it led somehow to the events in Azerbaijan because the problem in Azerbaijan, as in any country in the Caucasus, is that society supports the government and their ideas against gay people. In general of course, not the entire society. But the move by the Azerbaijani government, there was outcry only from few a people, from a few human rights activists, or from some journalists from some educated people, but just some. It’s so minority in the society that was against the move. So I would not say… If you mean that the story of Chechnya is that it opens the gate, I would not say so. I wouldn't say so. Also if it was immediately after the events in Chechnya, maybe it is somehow connected, but I don't see the direct relation.