The Case for Outcast Media

The Case for Outcast Media

If you were an ordinary citizen of Azerbaijan, you’d have little reason to doubt the official casualty count from your country’s recent skirmishes with Armenian separatists. Long used to a state-sanctioned narrative of events, you might have taken part in wave of patriotism that subsequently washed across the country. After all, your strongman president, Ilham Aliyev, painted the fighting last April — the latest flare-up in nearly three decades of hostilities over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic — as a military success.

But one scrappy media outlet did the math. Meydan TV, an independent website headed by Azeri dissidents that casts itself as one of the few critical voices reporting on Azerbaijan, reached out to the directly affected families. “The numbers that the ministry of defense was giving did not match the numbers we were receiving from people who had lost their loved ones,” says deputy program director Zarona Ismailova. Per Meydan TV’s count, the real number of dead was about three times higher than the 31 reported by the government. The outlet published the full list of names on its website, which was then shared more than 17,000 times on Facebook. And it coordinated the effort from its base in Berlin.

Doing so from inside Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic which democracy watchdog Freedom House classifies as “Not Free,” would’ve been all but impossible. Critics say the Aliyev government has used its vast oil reserves to fund an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime that muzzles the media and jails political dissidents and others who dare to speak out. Earlier this year, prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released from prison after a year-and-half behind bars for her reporting on the widespread corruption in the Aliyev family.

Such are the circumstances that prevent Meydan TV from operating freely inside the country. A brainchild of political exile Emin Milli, the project was first launched in 2013 as a television station broadcasting into Azerbaijan from Germany. Having been repeatedly jailed in Azerbaijan for his public criticism of the regime, Milli moved to Berlin in early 2013 and received political asylum there. But the program lasted only a week before the authorities jammed the signal, forcing Milli to change tack. That’s when it turned into an operation that has grown, in his words, “from a bunch of bloggers … into a professional online media outlet” that focuses on hard-hitting reports. Recently, it gained attention for an interactive project that illustrated how various sights along last June’s Formula 1 route in Baku were tied to instances of official malfeasance.

But Meydan TV’s case also illustrates an important — if somewhat disheartening — point: In countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, such as those of the former Soviet Union, remote media projects are often the only source of critical or accurate information. Stifling restrictions on free speech and media mean that journalists inside those countries can’t report openly, at least not without taking on massive risks. Instead, outlets like Meydan TV are forced to rely on the Internet and often anonymous stringers to gather information. In so doing, they serve curious — though usually still small — audiences determined to break out from behind their governments’ information blockades.

Reaching out to audiences in authoritarian states from afar isn’t exactly a new principle. During the Cold War, the U.S. government used outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America to break through the Iron Curtain and counter Soviet and Warsaw Pact propaganda. After a new generation of autocrats took over across much of the post-Soviet space, they built regimes that incorporate many features of their Soviet predecessors. In states such as Azerbaijan or the closed autocracies of Central Asia, the executive’s rule is absolute and the state exercises virtually total control over the media. If an activist, critical journalist, or any other free-thinker speaks out, criminal charges — usually manufactured — are filed against them. “The main goal is to force a person to stay quiet,” says Daniil Kislov, editor of a Moscow-based website, Fergana News, that reports on the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia.

Meydan TV’s success is due in large part to a growing network of what it calls “citizen journalists” — locals who feed editors news tips, stories and other developments that would never make it into state-controlled media. For instance, when the government sought to downplay a deadly oil rig fire in the Caspian Sea last December, Meydan TV posted a report featuring relatives of missing workers complaining about ineffective officials and conflicting information. It even obtained footage of the fire apparently from a rescuer dispatched to the scene.

The Aliyev regime has taken notice. It has launched a criminal investigation into the outlet and levied travel bans, as well as other forms of harassment, against local Azeri journalists who have contributed to it. While access to Meydan TV isn’t blocked inside Azerbaijan, it has experienced a number of DDoS attacks that crashed the website for several hours at a time. But Milli says that’s a good sign: “Every attack against us is an acknowledgment of our success, and no attack against us will stop us from doing what we’re doing, which is just journalism — nothing less, and nothing more.”

Some believe it’s more complicated than that. On one hand, the outlet provides a desperately-needed counterbalance to powerful state propaganda. On the other, Azerbaijan’s restrictive atmosphere creates such a sense of desperation that simply getting the information out is often a high-stakes act of bravery for those on the ground. Katy Pearce, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who studies communication in post-Soviet regimes, points out that much of Meydan TV’s most resonant work has come during times of crisis — such as the oil rig fire — when the urgency of the situation can trump the ability to verify every piece of information. Milli and his colleagues say they fact-check their stories and are committed to the standards of professional journalism. But their goal, according to Pearce, is more than just journalism. “These are people who are activists first,” she says.

As with virtually any modern media organization, finding adequate funding is a challenge. For now, Meydan TV relies largely on grants from NGOs. The outlet’s leadership was disheartened by Germany’s refusal last year to provide federal funding on the basis that it might damage diplomatic relations with the Azeri regime. In the long term, Milli hopes to wean his outlet off donor funding and onto a more sustainable social business model, in which it would build partnerships with non-media businesses or invest in other wealth-creating projects.

Ultimately, Meydan TV — and other outlets like it — rely on a local readership that’s hungry enough to seek out alternative sources of information. Milli estimates that, in one way or another, Meydan reaches up to 20 percent of the population in Azerbaijan. By comparison, Western broadcasters such as RFE/RL, Voice of America, and the BBC reached up to 25 percent of adult population by the final decade of the Soviet Union, according to a recent book-length study. But observers hope that, in an increasingly connected world, the desire for accurate information will win out over authoritarian governments’ information blockades.

“I think the audience understands, most of the time, what is right and what is wrong,” says Kenan Aliyev, executive editor of Current Time, a news program produced by U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and beamed into Russian-speaking countries of the former Soviet Union. “Propaganda can be useful to a certain degree, but in the long run, people figure out what’s actually going on.”

In the photo, Emin Milli, director of Meydan TV, speaks at an event hosted by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Berlin on April 27.

Photo credit: ANDI WEILAND (Flickr)