Creating a space for democratic discourse in Azerbaijan

Oct 152008

Some thoughts from the night before our forum - Democracy in Azerbaijan: Goals & Challenges.Oct. 9, 200811 p.m. The end is in sight for a project that has occupied Chuck & me for the last two months. Yesterday we had a press conference to the forum – Democracy in Azerbaijan: Goals and Challenges. We were also guests on a Radio Liberty talk show, discussing the event. Tomorrow, the forum will be held at the Park Inn in Baku. We have confirmation for about 40 guests. We have confirmation from most of the panelists. We had a test run more than a week ago, to check the transmission of data over the Internet. But there are still plenty of areas of concern. Part of the interest in producing such an event is its unscripted aspect. We can do everything possible to ensure a smooth production, but it is impossible to foresee everything. It reminds me of when I was a newspaper editor. I did everything possible to make sure the production of the newspaper went smoothly, because there were bound to be some flies in the ointment somewhere. This is pretty much analogous in that way.

Chuck Rice is country director for the ICFJ investigative journalism program in Azerbaijan, and we’ve been able to find some good synergies between his program & my activities here. For example, the students are quite involved with this project. One was taking pictures yesterday. Others have been making phone calls. All of them will write news stories based on the event tomorrow night. Of course, this has been educational for me. While I produced a political forum several years ago, that was in the United States.

Presenting such an event in a foreign country raises entirely different issues. Aside from cultural differences, such as a reluctance of people to say “no” when they mean “no,” there are also political issues. It is disingenuous to pretend that the media in Azerbaijan operate in an unfettered environment. In fact, one of the questions we faced yesterday concerned the three journalists who are still imprisoned in this country. At the same time, however, criticism of the current administration cannot be too strident. This would be counterproductive at the very least. I have attempted to parry questions by pointing out that a free exchange of ideas is essential to the democratic process - whether we are in Azerbaijan or in the United States. And, I point out, the media in the United States also frequently fail to provide the substantive coverage of issues that the citizens of the United States deserve. This forum is an attempt to bring out important issues for discussion – issues like corruption, media freedom, and economic development. Now, we’ll see how the local media uses this event. We’ve prepared the forum – but it’s up to them to provide the coverage.