and why it was difficult to fact-check them

During the war the public in Armenia remained misinformed, while false information was spread actively by propaganda both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Journalists used open-source data to verify or debunk key official announcements.

Text : Karine Ghazaryan

The Second Karabakh War was a harsh time for Armenian journalists. On one hand, information flow was huge, on the other hand restrictions imposed on journalists’ work affected accurate reporting. As a result, on November 9, the completely misinformed public was shocked by a sudden and painful transition from “We will win!” to “We have lost”. 

The press in Armenia was subject to three levels of censorship: the government was censoring journalists, the public was censoring journalists and journalists were censoring themselves. The state announced martial law on the first day of the war. This meant that reporting anything but official information was prohibited. Breaking this rule could result in fines, and for some newsrooms it did: 9 news outlets were fined 700,000 AMD (about $1,400), while one of them refused to delete the publication and received an additional fine of 1,500,000 AMD (about $3,000).  

International journalists did not face fines, but many experienced difficulties with accreditation. Russian Novaya gazeta reporter Ilya Azar’s accreditation was canceled after Armenian public burst with anger on social media, refusing to read grim accounts of events from a local man interviewed by Azar. Similarly, Eurasianet’s editor Joshua Kucera was denied accreditation. Both Azar and Kucera were banned from reporting in Azerbaijan too. 
In the meanwhile, Russian propaganda blogger Semyon Pegov was given access to the frontline, from where he broadcast emotional but completely misleading reports. 

Second level of censorship came from the public. Torn between personal tragedies and the need to be resilient, people often refused to believe alarming news and silenced journalists who had raised concerns. Journalist Tatul Hakobyan complained on his Facebook page about attacks in comments every time he tried to speak about the desperate situation. Finally, the press was cautious about what it published. Journalist Roubina Margossian noted in an interview to that there was no need for government restrictions: “our self-censorship is more than enough”. 

In the midst of this three-level censorship and propaganda bombardment, fact-checkers and investigative journalists used open-source data to find and report reliable information about the war.


Satellite imagery helped to debunk claims on destruction of Ganja airport

Analysts used satellite images combined with geolocation techniques to create alternative maps of the situation on ground: available images and videos were geolocated and mapped to verify or debunk the territorial claims of the two governments.  

Satellite photos of Ganja airport


Another example is the claim of the Armenian side about the destruction of Ganja airport in Azerbaijan. Right after this announcement was made, “before and after” photos of the airport circulated widely on social media. However, the building in the photos had a sign “Lənkəran”. That is, it showed the airport of Lankaran city, not Ganja. Debunking of the claim itself came weeks later: journalists studied satellite images of Ganja airport and proved it was standing still.


SNA mercenaries were deployed to Azerbaijan 

Open source data was also used to prove the usage of mercenaries by Azerbaijan. Ilham Aliyev called these accusations “fake news”. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan similarly dismissed the claims as fake. However journalists and researchers across the world used social media posts by the mercenaries themselves to prove both presidents wrong. Of course, the first publication on the topic, which appeared back in summer, were based on testimonies of Syrian National Army (SNA) fighters. SNA is a Turkey-backed union of many rebel groups operating in Northern Syria. Starting from September 27, videos and photos of SNA militants in Azerbaijan’s State Border Service uniforms emerged on social media. The images were geolocated in Syrian military base under Turkish control, in Southern Azerbaijan, and finally, in the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

White phosphorus, used in the forests of Artsakh


While Azerbaijan, a signatory of the UN Mercenary Convention, denied the presence of SNA fighters, Armenia called these people “jihadists” and “terrorists”. These terms were misleading: analysts agree that SNA fighters mostly subscribed to be deployed in Azerbaijan for financial and not ideological reasons. Furthermore, they have not committed terror attacks. 

As Turkey-backed SNA presence in Azerbaijan became harder to deny, the allies accused Armenia of using Kurdish and Yazidi mercenaries. No proof was provided. Photos of fighters with the Yazidi flag circulated in Azerbaijani media did not take into consideration the fact that Armenia has a sizable Yazidi minority which are citizens of Armenia.


Banned weapons 

Azerbaijan actively bombed peaceful settlements with cluster munition from the very first days of war. Armenia responded similarly at the end of October. Cluster munitions are banned by respective UN convention because many bombs do not explode right after hitting the ground and may harm civilians afterwards. Neither Azerbaijan, nor Armenia signed the convention. 

Before Armenia eventually used cluster bombs in late October, President Aliyev’s assistant Hikmet Hajiyev published a photo of a pile of Israeli-made M095 DPICM, claiming Armenia tried to hit Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline. Analysts, however, expressed doubts: cluster bombs do not fall in piles, and it would be difficult to pick up and arrange the unexploded bombs for a photo.


Azerbaijani TV journalist claimed to be part of possibly staged video clips


No evidence, yet no trust

Azerbaijan is notorious for restricting free speech at peaceful times, let alone during a war. Armenian public refused to believe any claim made by Azerbaijani officials, even when there was not enough evidence to debunk those claims. For example, the public mocked the video of Armenian prisoner of war Azniv Baghdasaryan who was welcoming Azerbaijani soldiers. The woman was declared an invented character. Days later, however, Azniv Baghdasaryan was proven to be a real person: a story about her was published by back in 2004.

Backstage of the Azerbaijani propaganda video clip



Omnipresent Soros

Conspiracy theories have become an integral part of political life in Armenia since the Velvet Revolution. Conspirological narrative about George Soros is used frequently to attack post-revolutionary government both by well-established political parties, and by activist groups. During the war, Ilham Aliyev made an appearance on Russian state TV and called Pashinyan “henchman of Soros.” He repeated the claim in the domestic media as well. His choice of audiences is hardly a coincidence: authoritarian regimes of both Azerbaijan and Russia villainized and banned Soros-funded Open Society Foundation years ago. 

Nikol Pashinyan photoshopped in the photo of George Soros and Macedonia’s PM Zoran Zaev


In Armenia itself the theory about the government being secretly led by Soros did not fade out after Aliyev’s announcements. In his speeches opposition leader Vazgen Manukyan was eager to use the conspiracy theory to accuse the post-revolutionary government of serving evil interests.

Many of the most widespread false claims during the war were not very original. Total denial of one’s wrongdoing and mirroring accusations are characteristic of wartime propaganda. Journalists managed to debunk or verify some of the most important information during the war. But when it comes to convincing the audience, it is unclear whether the fact-checked information was as successful as propaganda.

George Soros and Ilham Aliyev

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