What happens when a state-controlled media sets an agenda and frames an issue in a particular way? In Azerbaijan, credulity — a state of willingness to believe in something in the absence of reasonable proof or knowledge — wins.
In a media environment controlled by the government like Azerbaijan’s, as my colleague Sarah Kendzior masterfully argues about Uzbekistan, all potential information is taken seriously. And, in the case of the Safarov affair in Azerbaijan, the government’s elaborate framing of what occurred, without any evidence whatsoever, has created a well-believed narrative. This narrative, originating in 2004, is the basis for much Azerbaijani justification in 2012.
The murder of Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan in 2004 by Azerbaijani Senior Lieutenant Ramil Safarov took place 10 years after a cease-fire agreement was brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ironically, the two military officers were participating in a NATO Partnership for Peace English-language course.
All governments, to different degrees, use the media to sway the public. They do this through agenda setting and framing. Agenda setting is the “public awareness” of a set of issues while framing is when an aspect of a perceived reality is made more salient in a communication context to promote a particular problem, definition, interpretation, or evaluation with cognitive schema for understanding. By following the media reports about the incident, it is possible to piece together the agenda setting and framing strategies.
All news content that included the name Ramil Safarov and was translated into English by the BBC Monitoring Service from 2004-2011 was analyzed. (The search was conducted through infoweb.newsbank.com and LexisNexis.) Though these results do not include every possible mention of the Safarov affair, it can be considered fairly representative of news in the countries it covers. The full text of media coverage is available here.
The first reports of the murder were published on the same day as the event and placed Safarov as the sole suspect. The Associated Press quoted the Budapest police major saying: “
Azerbaijani ATV television news responded to the Armenian Defense Ministry’s statement with a “clarification” from the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry that Safarov’s mental state must be considered. This is the beginning of the dominant Azerbaijani framing of “Safarov was driven to do this because the Armenians made him suffer.” In this report, Safarov’s status as an internally displaced person (IDP) was highlighted — his family was from an Armenian-occupied region and his family “was living in a Baku hostel in deplorable conditions,” although the statement did not note for how long this had occurred. The Azerbaijani ministry spokesman also noted that “many” of Safarov’s relatives were killed by Armenians during the war, although later reports vary in the number of relatives killed. Thus, Safarov-as-victim was the first introduction to the story for the Azerbaijani audience, a completely different framing than the Armenian narrative.
The day after the murder, AFP published quotes from a statement by the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, again framing the issue as Safarov-as-victim-of-Armenian-aggression and focusing on his IDP status, saying that “[A]ll this could not have failed to have an effect on Ramil Safarov‘s emotional state.” The AFP article was the introduction of what would become the understood straw that broke the camel’s back: Margaryan insulting Safarov. AFP quoted Azerbaijani officials claiming that Margaryan “impugning [Safarov’s] honor as an officer and Azeri citizen and insulting the memory of victims of the Armenian aggression,” but without any attribution for this information.
At this point, no Azerbaijani officials had been allowed to speak to Safarov. The only possible source would be one of the other students at the English-language program. But how would Azerbaijani officials be able to speak to the other students within 24 hours of the event? It is likely that as witnesses, they were instructed by police to not speak to anyone about what had occurred. Moreover, as military officers, these men have had operations security ingrained into their psyches. Information disclosure is not something that they would take lightly. Nonetheless, there was a second Azerbaijani officer, Anar Aliyev, on the program who may have spoken to someone about insults, but it is impossible to know if this occurred or if the insult argument originated from Baku.
The insult incident also conflicts with statements from the program’s Hungarian rector, quoted in Hungarian media, that the Armenian and Azerbaijani officers were on good terms and often joked with one another.
A week after the murder, the kindling of the insult incident began to ignite. A representative of the Karabakh War Veterans’ organization held — for no apparent reason — a press conference on the Safarov case and said that it “did not rule out that the Armenian officer had made insulting remarks in his relations with Safarov, which brought about the incident in the end.”
Then the insult turned into “systematically and purposefully exerted psychological pressure” from Margaryan to Safarov, according to Bilik news on February 25. Similarly, Azerbaijani Space TV also reported on February 25 that “It turned out that a week before the incident, the killed man and another Armenian officer insulted Safarov in a dormitory. The tension was defused through the intervention of other officers. However, as Safarov did not produce a strong reaction, the Armenian officers regarded this as his cowardice and cruelly insulted him. When they learnt that Safarov was from the currently occupied Cabrayil District, the Armenian officers started insulting him in a crueler way and exasperated him.”
It would be logical to inquire about the source of this information, yet none exists. Azerbaijani news agency Turan said that the information originated from “unofficial sources” on March 3, but in the same report: “[A]sked what was known about the reasons for the incident that led to the killing of an Armenian officer, the [Defense Ministry] spokesman said the investigation into the incident was still under way and that the Hungarian side was not disclosing any information in the interests of the investigation.”
On February 27, the Azerbaijani ombudsman added more twists to the insult: “Not only did he [Armenian officer] play a tape with the voices of suffering Azerbaijani women and girls, but he also cleaned his shoes with an Azerbaijani flag in front of Ramil [Safarov]. At that moment Ramil defended his national honor and responded immediately and correctly to this. I think that the world community should accept this.”
How did the ombudsman learn that a tape of suffering Azerbaijanis was played? And how did Margaryan, age 16 in 1994 during the last possible time any such tape could have been created, have such a tape 10 years later? And why did he bring this tape to Budapest with him? Similarly, how did the ombudsman learn that about a shoe cleaning incident?
Finally, on March 9, there is a third-hand report of repeated insults. Azerbaijani Space TV reported that Safarov’s father met with Safarov and was told about the repeated insults. What seems strange is that it is a reasonable assumption that Safarov’s attorneys instructed him to not admit guilt or discuss possible motives with anyone, even his father. Nonetheless, Safarov’s attorney also spoke to Space TV and said the incident had occurred because of the Armenian officer’s “unethical behavior.” After this, the news about the Safarov case quieted down for a while, but in May, the ombudsman and Safarov’s attorney met with Safarov. The attorney reported that only 10 people had been questioned as witnesses and three forensic examinations had been carried out and that Attorney Ismayilov had not been allowed to closely familiarize himself with the case. Given this, the claims over what occurred during the murder are even stranger.
The trial began in November 2004, but was postponed until February 2005. In March, the Azerbaijani Organization of Karabakh Liberation and other NGOs published a document making the insult argument to the Hungarian parliament, media, and the court itself to no avail. The trial finished in April 2006 during which Safarov was found guilty of both the murder of Margaryan and the intended murder of the other Armenian officer. The sentence was upheld in February 2007. In August of 2012, Safarov returned to Azerbaijan and was immediately pardoned and promoted as a hero.
In the days following the pardon, the Azerbaijani social media discussion frequently cited the insult incident as fact and the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry mentioned it in a letter to Hungary (it is unclear for whom the letter is intended).
It is impossible to know if, in fact, Margaryan or the other Armenian officers insulted Safarov, played a tape of suffering Azerbaijanis, or cleaned his shoes with the Azerbaijani flag. However, no witness came forward in the media or the trial to support any of these claims. Non-Armenian or Azerbaijani witnesses have no motivation to not testify to what they saw. Despite the absence of evidence, the vast majority of Azerbaijanis seem to believe that Margaryan insulted Safarov.
What role does evidence play in Azerbaijan? The media has to promote the state’s line and does so by engaging in kompromat (from the Russian abbreviation of compromising materials). Traditionally mudslinging about political figures, kompromat “often employs somewhat dubious facts and figures, sometimes with a grain of truth and sometimes essentially groundless.” Thus, for the media, evidence does not matter.
But why are Azerbaijani citizens willing to believe stories without evidence? First, the psychological state of Azerbaijani citizens is marked by a “pervasive bitterness and growing sense of deprivation,” a general sense of apathy and fear, and a lack of trust in others.
Second, the Azerbaijani public trusts the state run media. Nearly half of Azerbaijanis (in an early 2012 survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center) cite ANS television as the most trusted TV channel, and a quarter named Khazar. Moreover, nearly three-quarters of Azerbaijanis believe that TV channels provide unbiased news coverage. Third, the narrative presented by the Azerbaijani media fed into nationalistic and anti-Armenian attitudes already predominant amongst Azerbaijanis.
This leads to a low willingness to question media reports or express beliefs contrary to the dominant government narrative. An Azerbaijani citizen criticizing this story could experience attacks like blogger Arzu Geybullayeva or anonymous blogger Scary Azeri have. These two live outside of Azerbaijan and have less to fear than Azerbaijani citizens inside.
Even critics of the government are reluctant to question the government’s position on the Safarov affair. Emin Milli, a known opposition figure, recently blogged that there are Azerbaijanis who disagree with “the disgusting government propaganda,” although he too seems to believe that the insults occurred. And while it may indeed be the case that some Azerbaijanis deviate from the government, it is not realistic or safe for them to speak out.