ICFJ Transmits Forum on Elections in Azerbaijan

Oct 152008

The International Center for Journalists broke new ground in Azerbaijan Friday night with transmission of a pre-election forum over the Internet. The event, entitled “Democracy in Azerbaijan: Goals and Challenges,” drew more than 100 people to the Park Inn in the capital, Baku, and attracted online viewers across the globe, from Azerbaijan to North America.

Anar Orujov, deputy director of the ICFJ investigative journalism program in Baku, served as de facto technical manager of the event. He said transmission of the forum occurred with few problems. One of the most significant obstacles was the transmission speed, which was only about 1/20th of what was expected. By adjusting the quantity of information transmitted, however, the Internet webcasting proceeded smoothly.

“The quality of the video was not so good, but the event could be watched with a normal Internet stream,” Orujov said.

The forum was jointly organized by Charles Rice, director of the ICFJ investigative journalism program in Baku, and Eric Schwartz, a Knight International Journalism Fellow.

Rice said he hopes this will be the first of many forums in Azerbaijan. “These types of discussions are very important and need to reach the widest possible audience. When the TV stations in Baku declined to broadcast our forum live, we decided a TV webcast would be the next best thing and it just happens to be the first time something like this has been done. We used the Internet to get around the problem of distribution. The audience is not as big as we’d hope, but Internet use is continuing to grow in Azerbaijan.”

Schwartz explained that the goal was to create an opportunity for the people of Azerbaijan to benefit from an open discussion of important issues before the Oct. 15 presidential election. Too often in Azerbaijan and other countries, the media provide insufficient coverage of critical subjects prior to elections, he said.

Six panelists were recruited to participate in the panel discussion, which focused on political pluralism, economic development, and civil society. The panelists included an economist, a political scientist, a journalist, a member of parliament, the director of the Azerbaijan branch of Transparency International, and the Norwegian Ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Political scientist Ilgar Mammadov, director of the Baku Political Research and Advocacy Institute, and Aydin Mirzazade, a member of parliament, frequently sparred during the forum. For example, Mammadov argued that the degree of political freedom in Azerbaijan has regressed dramatically in the last eight years. Television has become more tightly controlled, he said, and journalists now censor themselves because they are afraid of reporting topics that might offend the government.

Mirzazade maintained that Azerbaijanis still have the right to political freedom. “There is political pluralism,” he said. “There is no need to hide your name when you criticize the government.”

The debate even involved viewers who were watching over the Internet. Several submitted questions for the panelists.

A total of 59 people listened to the event over the Internet. Another 128 watched the webcast, Orujov said. The viewers and listeners came from countries including Canada and the United States, in addition to the domestic audience in Azerbaijan. The transmission was made at the site maintained by Kanal 13 TV, a project run by the Caucasus Media Investigations Center.

Now that the feasibility of Internet transmission has been demonstrated, Orujov said he fully expects to webcast other events.

“I would like to do it periodically,” he said. “If people know that they can see interesting debates on alternative channels, they will tune in."