The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Through the Prism of the British Media and The New York Times, 1988-1994

Kamala Imranli-Lowe. Caucasus Survey. Volume 3, Issue 2. 2015.


The mass media is an important instrument that shapes or influences people’s opinions on various topics, including different conflicts going on around the world. One of them is the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh. The current article deals with the coverage of the conflict by the leading British media outlets, such as BBC TV and newspapers The GuardianThe TimesThe Financial Times and The Independent, and compares their coverage with that of The New York Times. It focuses on these media because they were influential English-language Western media outlets shaping Western public opinion in the UK and the USA, two of the great powers participating in the US-led Western bloc in the Cold War against the Soviet-led Eastern bloc when the conflict started in 1987. British media coverage of this conflict also assumes importance due to Britain’s historical and contemporary geopolitical and economic interests in the South Caucasus, namely in 1918-1919, when it was the Allied representative in the region, one which included the first Azerbaijani and Armenian republics, and also after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the third Azerbaijani and Armenian republics emerged. The study of this issue is also important because of the strong Armenian diaspora in the UK and the USA in particular, in order to assess the impact of the diaspora factor on the media coverage.

The most intensive period of coverage of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan lasted from February 24-25, 1988, after the members of the Armenian community at the session of the NKAO Soviet of People’s Deputies had decided to appeal to the Supreme Soviets of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and the Azerbaijani SSR for the transfer of the region from Azerbaijan to Armenia on February 20, to May 1994, when a ceasefire agreement was signed which continues up to the present time, despite frequent violations since August 2014. Reporting took place in the context of the ongoing Cold War, the troubled relations between the West and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, domestic “riots” taking place in the UK and the USA, and the reform policies of perestroika and glasnost launched by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s. This period also led up to and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the re-emergence of the independent republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, bringing on the active military phase of the conflict in 1992 continuing up to the May 1994 ceasefire. As a result of this conflict, a great portion of Azerbaijani territories, including in and around its Nagorny Karabakh region, were occupied by Armenia.

The article explores the coverage of the following issues by the above-mentioned English-language media outlets: how the Nagorny Karabakh conflict and the region were defined and their histories were presented; how the origins of the non-military phase of the current stage of the conflict and its aftermath were reported; how the military phase of the conflict and its consequences were portrayed; and what were the underlying factors shaping this coverage. In order to address these questions, I carried out discourse analysis of thousands of items in the period between 1988 and 1994, making comparative analysis of the same themes across the researched media in the context of the discussed countries and the period, and tested the findings against data from available and serious primary and secondary sources.

Although the first open signs of Armenian territorial claims on Azerbaijan, which signalled the beginning of the current stage of the conflict, were evident in 1987, the researched British and the US media outlets reported about them in 1988. The coverage of the conflict by The GuardianThe TimesThe Financial Times and The New York Times began on February 24-25, 1988, whereas online records of the conflict’s coverage by The Independent were available through Nexis UK from September 20, 1988 when I accessed it in February-May 2014. The first BBC TV broadcast on the conflict was on March 4, 1988.

Reporting on the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict and the Region: History and Definitions

From February 1988 onwards, leading British media outlets dedicated numerous news reports and a number of editorials and lead articles to the conflict. These texts demonstrate how the British media defined and presented the Nagorny Karabakh region, the conflict and their histories. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have conflicting discourses on the history of the region, which shape their views on the historical aspects of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to the dominant Armenian discourse, the Nagorny Karabakh region has been part of a political and/or a geographical notion of Armenia since ancient times (Hovannisian 1967, 1-2, note 5, 257; Nersisian 1980, 7-10, 27; Hewsen 2004, 1-17). As for the history of Nagorny Karabakh within Azerbaijan, Armenian historians write that after the establishment of Soviet rule, Azerbaijani Communists proclaimed that the region would go to Soviet Armenia, but then the decision was reversed (Suny 1988, 39; Hovannisian 1996, 382-383, 399). The dominant Azerbaijani historical discourse considers that Karabakh has never been part of Armenia, and that from ancient times up to the early eighth century it was part of the kingdom of the Caucasian Albanians, who were one of the ancestors of the present-day Azerbaijani people. From then to the nineteenth century it was part of different Muslim states and state entities, and since 1918 it has been part of Azerbaijan. According to this discourse, the present-day Armenian population of Nagorny Karabakh is a mixture of Armenianised Caucasian Albanians (there are different opinions as to their date of Armenianisation) and the Armenians who settled from abroad in the nineteenth century after the conquest of the South Caucasus by Russia (Bünyadov 1989, 95, note 98, 92; Mamedova [Mammadova] 2001, 22-33; Imranli-Lowe 2015).

The British media very often appealed to history as one of the main causes of the conflict. According to Christopher Walker7 from The Times, which reported on the problem for the first time on February 24, 1988a, “the Armenian nationalists” were “seeking the return of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region of Azerbaijan, which belonged to Armenia before the 1917 Revolution”. In another report three days later, Walker, without any reference, wrote that Nagorny Karabakh was “first brought under Armenian control in the first century AD and lost to the neighbouring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1923” (1988b). On March 3, 1988, The Guardian published an article by Diran Meghreblian from the BBC Russian Service. The article, among others, mentioned that after the establishment of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan and Armenia, “Karabakh—renamed Nagorno, which means mountainous in Russian—was perversely put under Azerbaijani control, cut off from Armenia, although for centuries it had been inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians.” A history of the region that mirrored the dominant Armenian narrative was often repeated by The Guardian. Quoting Grant Voskanian, the President of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, Jonathan Steele, from this newspaper, wrote:

The day after Soviet power reached Armenia in December, 1920 … the revolutionary committee of Azerbaijan decreed that Nagorno-Karabakh should be part of Armenia … But shortly afterwards, under nationalistic pressure … the Azerbaijani committee changed its position and called for the transfer of the region because the original decision was being attacked by anti-Soviet Azerbaijanis. At Stalin’s insistence the decision was reversed on July 5, 1921. (1988b)

Although in this excerpt Steele referred to Voskanian, later, in further reports, without any reference he repeated a similar view, writing that “with its majority Armenian population, the [Nagorny Karabakh] region could have been joined back to Armenia from which it was taken in 1921” (1988c) or: “Stalin took one of his worst decisions in awarding the area to Azerbaijan in spite of an overwhelming Armenian population. The Armenians insist on having it back” (1989). While touching upon the origins of the Nagorny Karabakh problem, Rupert Cornwell from The Independent, without revealing his source, wrote that the root cause is “the Armenians’ desire for Nagorny Karabakh to be transferred from Azerbaijani administration back to Armenia, from which it was severed in 1923” (1989). Helen Womack, also from The Independent, wrote that Nagorny Karabakh “has been part of Armenia since ancient times and is still populated mostly by Armenians but which Lenin gave to Azerbaijan in 1923” (1990) or: “The mountainous region of Nagorny Karabakh, populated mostly by Christian Armenians who want to re-unite with Yerevan, has been ruled from Baku since 1922 when Lenin transferred it to Muslim Azerbaijan” (1991).

Analysis of the coverage of the region’s history by the British media outlets shows that they presented it—with very few exceptions—along the above-mentioned lines, either based on Armenians as sources or without reference but repeating the same or a similar narrative. In addition, they allocated a lot of space to a number of articles by either Armenian authors or those sympathising with them, which resulted in the domination of Armenian views on the history of the region in these newspapers, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Nagorny Karabakh belonged to Armenia before the 1917 Revolution.
  • Nagorny Karabakh was part of Armenia from the first century AD to 1923.
  • Nagorny Karabakh was part of Greater Armenia but in 1921 it was attached to Muslim Azerbaijan by Stalin.
  • After the declaration of Soviet power in Armenia, Azerbaijan decreed that Nagorny Karabakh should be part of Armenia, but shortly afterwards it changed its position and called for the transfer of the region, which was reversed at Stalin’s insistence on July 5, 1921.
  • Nagorny Karabakh has been ruled from Baku since 1922 or 1923, when Lenin transferred it to Muslim Azerbaijan.
  • Frequent use of words like “re-unification” with and “return” of Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia.

This summary reveals that there is no consistency in the presentation of the history of the region by the researched British media. One cannot identify when Nagorny Karabakh was separated from Armenia and attached to Azerbaijan: after the 1917 Revolution (February or October?), December 1920, July 1921, 1922 or 1923. Moreover, an impression is created that the “1917 Revolution” took place not in Russia, but in Armenia, as a result of which Nagorny Karabakh was given to Azerbaijan either immediately after this revolution, four years afterwards in 1921, five years afterwards in 1922 or six years afterwards in 1923. If “Armenia” “fell” as a result of the 1917 Revolutions, in which country was Soviet rule declared in 1920? In other words, the above-quoted histories of the region give rise to more questions than answers.

Since the common premise was the linkage of this alleged separation of Nagorny Karabakh from Armenia and its annexation to Azerbaijan to the Soviet national delimitation with Stalin’s personal involvement, it is important to shed some light on this argument. Research based on primary sources reveals that on November 29, 1920, the Revolutionary Committee of Armenia declared Armenia an SSR (Mnatsakanian et al. 1957, dok. 291, 433). The next day, on November 30, the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist [Bolshevik] Party (Azərbaycan Kommunist (bolşevik) Partiyası Mərkəzi Komitəsi in Azerbaijani) adopted a decision “to grant a right to self-determination to Nagorny Karabakh”. On December 1, Nariman Narimanov, Head of the Azerbaijani Government, repeated the same in his declaration on the occasion of the declaration of Soviet rule in Armenia.

If Azerbaijan had given Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia, then the agreement signed on December 2, 1920 in Erevan between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Republic of Armenia one day after Narimanov’s declaration would have mentioned the name of this region in the list of the regions considered by both republics as parts of the Armenian SSR. However, there is no mention of Nagorny Karabakh in this agreement (Klyuchnikov and Sabanin 1928, dok. 41, 75-76; Mnatsakanian et al. 1957, dok. 295, 441-442; Hovannisian 1996, 387). Soviet rule did not fulfil the expectations of the Armenian nationalists because it did not include Nagorny Karabakh and Naxçıvan (Nakhchyvan, Nakhichevan) in Armenia. For that reason, the Dashnaks, members of the Armenian nationalist Dashnaktsutiun Party, headed by Simon Vratzian, carried out a coup d’état in Yerevan on February 18, 1921, which lasted until April 2, 1921, when the Dashnaks were driven to the southernmost region of Zangezur under Soviet pressure (Hovannisian 1996, 405). It was under these circumstances that in order to pacify the Dashnaks in the mountains of Zangezur and to establish Soviet rule there, on July 4, 1921, the plenum of Kavburo (Kavkazskoe Byuro Tsentral’nogo Komiteta Rossiyskoy Kommunisticheskoy Partii (bol’shevikov)—Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist [Bolshevik] Party)—wanted to “include” Nagorny Karabakh in the Armenian SSR. However, with strong objections by Nariman Narimanov, whom the Armenian narrative referred to as the person who allegedly wanted to give Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia, Kavburo decided to submit the issue for the “final decision” of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist [Bolshevik] Party (Guliev 1989, 90-91; Suny 1993, 194; Payaslian 2007, 174).

The next day, on July 5, 1921, Grigol (known as Grigoriy and Sergo) Ordzhonikidze, Chairman of Kavburo, and Amayak Nazaretian, one of the members and Secretary of Kavburo, raised the issue of reconsidering the decision of July 4. It should be noted that a day earlier, on July 4, Ordzhonikidze voted in favour of the “inclusion” of Nagorny Karabakh in Armenia and against “retaining” the region within Azerbaijan, whereas Nazaretian, himself Armenian, on July 4 voted in favour of “retaining” the region within Azerbaijan and against its “inclusion” in Armenia. After consideration of the raised issue, the session of the Kavburo plenum of July 5, 1921 decided:

Taking into account the necessity of national peace between the Muslims and the Armenians, the economic relations between Upper and Lower Karabakh and its permanent relations with Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh shall be retained within the Azerbaijani SSR and broad autonomy shall be given to Nagorny Karabakh with Shusha city as an administrative centre.

The fact that the decision stated to “retain” the region within Azerbaijan shows that it belonged to Azerbaijan before and until then; otherwise the decision would state to “give” or to “include”; the last word was used on July 4, 1921 with the intention of giving the region to Armenia. This semantic evidence refutes the arguments on the separation of the region from Armenia on July 5, 1921. Moreover, this decision also took into account Karabakh’s “permanent relations with Azerbaijan”, which further refutes arguments that Nagorny Karabakh had been part of Armenia from ancient times until they were “separated” in 1917, 1921, 1922 or 1923.

Research of the coverage by The New York Times reveals a somewhat different picture. On the first day of its reporting on the conflict, this newspaper’s correspondent Felicity Barringer made a small excursion into history with reference to the American-Armenian historian Richard Hovannisian. Barringer wrote that the Nagorny Karabakh region was “ceded to Armenia by Azerbaijan when Armenia became a part of the Soviet Union in December 1920”, which, in “1924”, was “put under Azerbaijani control” (1988a). Philip Taubman also included some information on the region’s history, writing about the “predominantly Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh wholly separated from Armenia by the boundaries drawn in the 1920’s” (1988d). With the exception of a number of such attempts to write about the history of the region, either on their behalf or with reference to Armenians, in general The New York Times correspondents avoided making comments on the history of the region. They mostly limited themselves to reporting the Armenian demands, which included an Armenian version of the region’s history, and they avoided siding with either Armenian or Azerbaijani narratives. Also, The New York Times did not have separate articles dedicated to the history of the conflict written by Armenian authors, nor did it allocate much space to Armenian narratives, as was the case with the researched British newspapers.

Other issues to be addressed in this section are the terms “enclave”, “disputed”, “disputed enclave” and “disputed region” frequently used by the British and the US journalists in reference to the Nagorny Karabakh region11 (Barringer 1988d; Keller 1988b; Lloyd 1988; Steele 1988a; Walker, M. 1988f; Fein 1989; Lucas 1991). No student of English linguistics, international law and geography would dispute that “enclave” is a term applied to an area completely surrounded by the territory of another country. The NKAO was part of the Azerbaijani SSR and was surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. For that reason, neither “enclave” nor “exclave”, a part of one country geographically separated from its main body by the territory of another or other countries, was applicable to the NKAO. As for the term “disputed”, in order to be called so, the administrative unit under discussion should have been disputed by both parties to the conflict. Since there is no change in the position of Azerbaijan, which, at the beginning of the current stage of the conflict as well as today, considers the region as its undisputed territory, and the fact that it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the term “disputed” or “disputed region” is not applicable either.

The conflict was also defined or classified in religious-confessional terms, namely as a “Christian-Shi’a Muslim” one. For example, Christopher Walker from The Times wrote that “The situation between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan has been traditionally tense because the Armenians are devoutly Christian, while the Azerbaijanis are Shi [sic] Muslims” (1988a). The New York Times also carried very frequent references to religion presenting the conflict as a Muslim-Christian one and emphasising the Shi’a confession of the majority of Azerbaijanis. For example, Philip Taubman wrote: “One of the disquieting aspects of the recent disturbances for Moscow was the involvement of Azerbaijanis, who are predominantly Shiite Moslems, the sect that has been most open to Islamic fundamentalism” (1988h). Another example from The New York Times: “The grievances fed on a long history of hostility between Armenians, who are predominantly Christian, and Azerbaijanis, who are heavily Moslem” (Keller 1988a). Muslim Azerbaijanis peacefully coexisted with Christian Armenians in Azerbaijan for many decades before 1988 and still peacefully coexist with other Christian peoples and Jews in Azerbaijan. There is good neighbourliness of relations between Christian Georgia and Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia and Muslim “Shi’a” Iran. Christian Armenians continue peacefully co-existing with Muslims in the Middle East as well. These historical traditions of co-existence refute interpretations of the conflict along religious-confessional lines.

The Non-Military Phase of the Conflict: Reporting on Its Origins and Aftermath

Armenian territorial claims on Azerbaijan were first publicly voiced in November 1987, which was reported about by the US and British newspapers in 1988. On April 10, 1988, Hedrick Smith from The New York Times, while reporting on the visit of Abel Aganbegian, an economic adviser of Armenian origin to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to the USA, also touched upon his visit to Paris in 1987 where he met with a group of French Armenians. According to Smith, Aganbegian was “quoted by L’Humanité, the French Communist newspaper, as saying that the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Azerbaijani republic deserved to be linked to the Armenian republic”. With reference to Aganbegian, Smith wrote that “he had been reprimanded for [these] comments”, but insisted that “he had merely said the matter was under study by a commission, and that he was not to blame.” “Foreign specialists said”, Smith went on, “his remarks may have helped fuel this year’s [1988] mass Armenian protests, which coincided with his visit to America.”

Robert Fisk, British correspondent for The Times, reporting from Lebanon, with reference to his Armenian interviewee Dr Hratch Bedoyan, head of the Central Committee of the Armenian nationalist party Dashnaktsutiun in Beirut, wrote that “two private lectures by senior Soviet officials, the first in London, the second in Paris, foreshadowed the events which shook the Kremlin earlier this year”: one by Abel Aganbegian in London in late 1987, who “unofficially” declared in a gathering of Armenians that “the problem of Karabakh was now going to be ‘solved’”. Another lecture was given by Zori Balayan, Armenian writer, in Paris in November 1987, who “made a similar statement” (1988).

I do not have documentary evidence of Aganbegian’s visit to London in late 1987 on what I learn by reading Robert Fisk’s above-mentioned report. However, Aganbegian’s statement containing territorial claims not only to Nagorny Karabakh, but also to Naxçıvan, both in the Azerbaijani SSR, on November 16, 1987 in Paris has been documented. Aganbegian stated that “I expect that in the context of perestroika the question of the annexation of Karabagh and Nak[h]ichevan to Armenia will find its solution” (Libaridian 1988, 70). The Guardian correspondent Martin Walker was surprised at the dismissal of Aganbegian by Gorbachev in 1989 after finding him “somehow responsible for Armenian nationalism and the trouble over Nagorno-Karabakh” and called this connection an “odd idea” (1989). Seemingly, Walker did not have information about Aganbegian’s statement in Paris.

British researcher Thomas de Waal in his book on this conflict wrote on the first refugees of the conflict, Azerbaijanis from Armenia in November 1987 and January 1988, who arrived in Azerbaijan. As de Waal noted, “it was not reported at all in the media” (2013, 19), either in local media or those studied for this article. The New York Times was the first among the researched media which reported about the first casualties of the conflict. Based on information from Igor Muradian, one of the early leaders of the Armenian nationalist movement, The New York Times correspondent Philip Taubman reported from Moscow on February 27 that “two Azerbaijanis were killed in a clash in Nagorno-Karabakh earlier this month and that 19 people were wounded. Of the wounded, about half are Armenian, the others Azerbaijanis” (1988c). The New York Times journalist Felicity Barringer reported on February 28 that

A Soviet prosecutor today [February 28] confirmed the deaths of two Azerbaijani residents of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early days of the protests. In a Soviet radio broadcast monitored by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the prosecutor, Aleksandr Katus[h]ev, said that the deaths had occurred in the Agdamsky district of Azerbaijan. It was the first official confirmation of fatalities, which a nationalist leader [Igor Muradian] had reported Saturday [February 27]. (1988b)

The Financial Times reported that “two people had died in the unrest … in the Agdamsky district of Azerbaijan” (Bobinski 1988a), but without mentioning their ethnicity, which it made clear the next day while reporting on Sumqayıt “riots” in Azerbaijan to be discussed later, where, inter alia, mentioned that “two Azerbaijanis were reported to have been killed in clashes in the region in the past two weeks” (Bobinski 1988b). The first fatalities were also reported by The Times, but with the headline “Armenian deaths admitted” (Walker, C. 1988c). The Times did not mention in the text of the report the ethnicity of the two people who were killed, but created a headline “Armenian deaths admitted”, although by that time it was already known that the people killed were of Azerbaijani origin.

The next day, in the report about the Sumqayıt “riots”, with the headline “Race riots spread to Muslim city: Bitter blow for Gorbachov” with the three key words “race”, “riots” and “Muslim”, The Timesinter alia, wrote: “earlier in the disturbances, it was reported that two people with Azerbaijani family names had been killed elsewhere in the republic, which has a 740-mile border with Iran” (Walker, C. 1988d). Although one would have expected a new report with a proper headline as it did the previous day with distorted information on the ethnicity of the killed people, namely “Armenian deaths admitted”, The Times did not do this. Instead it reported on the deaths of two Azerbaijanis in a way in which only careful readers would notice and even this it tried to somehow connect with Iran, the reasons for which will be discussed in the last section of this article.

The Guardian did not report on the issue. As for The Independent, its online archives are available only from September 1988. BBC TV reported on the conflict for the first time on March 4. Among other news, it mentioned that on February 28 “for the first time the [Soviet] government admitted two people died in riots nearby Agdamski”. The BBC did not mention their ethnicity, although by that time this information had already been made available. No reference to the ethnicity of those killed would have been understood properly, if the BBC had been consistent in this policy. But its next broadcast on the conflict on March 16 started with the following introduction by its news presenter:

Victims of ethnic unrest in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan have been giving their first detailed accounts of the atrocities they say that they have suffered. In an amateur video that has reached the West, victims, all Armenian, speak from their hospital beds about barbaric attacks, stabbings and stoning. One old man, beaten up and bruised, says that his grandchildren were all killed. Another man, attacked in his car, described it as organised hooliganism. The authorities turned a blind eye, he claims.

This introduction was followed by the report from the BBC Moscow correspondent Brian Hanrahan, accompanied by home-made video recordings provided by the French TV Channel TF1. One of them dated from February 26, 1988, and was about the demonstrations in Stepanakert. Another one dated from February 25, 1988, and showed buses with their windows smashed and several injured men lying on hospital beds, who spoke to an amateur cameraman in Armenian and whose conversation was subtitled in English. Among them there was a man of 74 years old, as reported by Hanrahan, who was also interviewed in Armenian by the cameraman. His words were accompanied by the following subtitles: “They [Azerbaijanis] have killed my grandchildren … my son as well.”

As quoted earlier, The New York TimesThe Financial Times and The Times reported on the ethnicity of those killed. This news is still authoritative and the deaths of two Azerbaijanis killed by Armenians on February 22, 1988 near the settlement of Əsgəran in the NKAO, Azerbaijani SSR, are considered the first fatalities of the conflict (de Waal 2013, 16, 331). The subtitles of the Armenian video recordings of February 25, 1988 on alleged killings of Armenians in the NKAO do not pass the test of fact verification. It can be considered as provocation to victimise the Armenians and spread this footage via the French television channel TF1 and BBC TV without verification at least by the newspapers mentioned above, which had already reported on this incident that took place on February 22. In addition, The New York Times on March 11 (Barringer and Keller 1988), namely five days before the BBC coverage of the issue, revealed the names of the Azerbaijanis who had been killed: “Aleksandr Katus[h]ev, a deputy federal prosecutor from Moscow, broke the news in a broadcast on the Baku radio. “As a consequence of these disorders”, he said, “two inhabitants of the Agdam district of Azerbaijan, 16-year-old Bakhtiar Uliyev and 23-year-old Ali Gadzhiyev, fell victim to murder.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and internally displaced Azerbaijanis by the researched media until March 2, 1988, when news about them came to the surface as a part of the news reports on the Sumqayıt “riots” on February 28-29. Christopher Walker from The Times reported that “Mr Karen Demirchyan, the hard-pressed Armenian Communist Party leader, said in a local television address on Monday [February 29] that some Azerbaijanis had already fled their homes in the republic because of the unrest” (1988e). However, the report of the next day by Martin Walker and Michael Simmons from The Guardian suggested that the number of Azerbaijanis fleeing Armenia were not “some”. They wrote:

An official commission has been established, under the leadership of a senior Party official, to help Azerbaijani refugees, who had fled Armenia over the past two weeks, to return to their homes. This was the first indication that there had been refugees.

Although no numbers were given, commission announcements on Azerbaijani radio yesterday [March 2, 1988] said that facilities would be made available for refugees to return by coach, train and air, and it was clear that considerable numbers were involved. (1988)

Based on unofficial sources, they wrote that several thousand Azerbaijanis had fled Armenia, with more from the NKAO (1988).

The New York Times also mentioned the flow of the Azerbaijanis from Armenia. With reference to the Azerbaijani government officials, on March 3, Philip Taubman wrote about hundreds of Azerbaijanis fleeing their homes in Armenia during the disturbances last week who needed assistance and that a commission had been formed to help them return to their homes in Armenia (1988f).

More news about the Azerbaijani casualties were revealed with the Sumqayıt “riots”, which The Times, in its usual way, explained by the “Islamic militancy” of the Azerbaijanis, “encouraged by their republic’s physical proximity to Iran” (Walker, C. 1988e). The first report of The Times about Sumqayıt was published on March 1 with the headline “Race riots spread to Muslim city: Bitter blow for Gorbachov”. The newspaper wrote: “For the first time last night [February 29], Tass [News Agency of the Soviet Union—K.I-L.] revealed that the unrest had spread to the industrial city of Sumgait and that tough measures were being taken to control it.” Quoting Tass, The Guardian correspondent Martin Walker in his report with a similar headline, “Soviet Muslims rampage” (1988a), and The Times correspondent Christopher Walker in his report referred to earlier, wrote that “a group of hooligans” provoked disturbances in the city of Sumqayıt in Azerbaijan, which was followed by “rampage and violence”. With reference to the Soviet spokesman Gennadiy Gerasimov, on March 3, The Times and The Guardian reported that several people were killed in ethnic clashes in the Azerbaijani city of Sumqayıt on February 28 (Walker, C. 1988f; Walker and Simmons 1988). In the same reports they also referred to Sergey Grigoryants, dissident editor of the Glasnost’ magazine, “who had been told by Armenian relatives of the Sumgait victims” that 17 had been killed and another 70 injured.

On March 5, The Guardian and The Times correspondents, again based on Tass, reported that 31 people had been killed in the rioting in Sumqayıt on February 28 (Walker, C. 1988h, Walker, M. 1988b). BBC TV reported along similar lines on March 4: “Last weekend in the city of Sumgait, in Azerbaijan, came what looked like a backlash from the Azerbaijanis. There were riots. Two people were reported killed initially, but tonight further announcement puts the toll in Sumgait up to 31.” With reference to the Soviet spokesman Gennadiy Gerasimov, on March 10, The Guardian correspondent Martin Walker reported that the official death toll had increased by one, to a total of 32, with higher numbers of people who were injured (1988d). The same number of deaths was reported by The Times and The Financial Times on March 11, 1988 (Walker, C. 1988k; Bobinski 1988d).

Alongside official Soviet information, these newspapers reported on unofficial accounts from their own sources. Martin Walker from The Guardian with reference to Valeriy Sanderov, Chairman of the Moscow branch of the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights, wrote on March 9 that after telephoning contacts in Yerevan, Sanderov had told him that the lowest estimate was “180 dead and at least a thousand injured”, while the above-quoted source of Western newsmen Sergey Grigoryants believed “at least a hundred had been killed” (1988c). The GuardianThe Times and The Financial Times provided broad coverage of the account of Andrey Shilkov, a journalist in the unofficial human rights magazine Glasnost’ and a dissident friend of the above-mentioned editor of Glasnost’, Sergey Grigoryants. According to Shilkov,

The killers burst into the maternity hospital, and at knife point forced the doctors to show where the Armenian women lay. Then they disembowelled them all, pregnant or not. The new born babies were swung by the legs and smashed against the wall and then thrown out of the window. (Walker, M. 1988e)

On March 21, with reference to dissident sources, The Times reported that the “death toll is much higher and could be up to 700”. However, on March 30, The Times again reported on the issue, writing that “Soviet investigators have denied rumours that the death toll from last month’s ethnic rioting in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait had run into hundreds, or that Azerbaijani thugs had committed a pogrom in a maternity hospital” (Walker, C. 1988m). This news was not reported either by The Guardian or The Financial Times.

It is worth mentioning that within March 1988 only, The TimesThe Guardian and The Financial Times dedicated more than 20 reports to the issue with catchy headlines; to mention just some of them: “Race riots spread to Muslim city: Bitter blow for Gorbachov” (The Times, Walker, C. 1988d); “Riots in second Muslim city: Soviet racial unrest spreads” (The Times, Walker, C. 1988g); “Armenians honour victims of violence” (The Times, Walker, C. 1988i); “Armenian refugees accuse Muslims of barbaric attacks: Azerbaijan ethnic violence” (The Times, Walker, C. 1988j); “‘Slaughter’ in maternity unit blamed on Muslims: Witnesses give chilling account of atrocities in Azerbaijan’s riots” (The Times, Walker, C. 1988l); “Soviet Muslims rampage” (The Guardian, Walker, M. 1988a); “Armenians ‘massacred’ in ethnic riots” (The Guardian, Walker, M. 1988c); “Dissident journalist bears tale of Armenian ‘bloodbath’” (The Guardian, Walker, M. 1988e); “Armenian Women Honour Victims Of Ethnic Riot” (The Financial Times, Bobinski 1988c).

The New York Times reported the same or similar news on Sumqayıt “riots”, which alongside official reports contained rumours from dissident and other sources. Commenting about them, Bill Keller later in August 1988 wrote that

Armenians in Yerevan, Moscow and the United States insist that hundreds of Armenians were slaughtered, and that a cover-up took place. If so, no one has come forth with evidence to prove it. The most gruesome of the rumors, the widely circulated report that rioters swept through the Sumgait maternity hospital searching out Armenian mothers and throwing their infants out the windows, was flatly denied by a doctor interviewed at the hospital, by an Armenian nurse interviewed separately, and by the investigators. (1988c).

Comparison of the headlines of the British media on Sumqayıt events with those of The New York Times reveals that the news headlines of the latter on the subject made no reference to religion, or often references to ethnicity as was the case with The Times and The Guardian. Here are headlines of The New York Times which touched upon the Sumqayıt events between March 1 and 11, 1988: “Soviet [sic] Reports a Major Oil Center In Azerbaijan Is Shaken by Riots”; “Soviet [sic] Says It Used Troops to Quell Riots in South”; “Soviet [sic] Reports Deaths in Rioting; Unofficial Toll in Azerbaijan Is 17”; “Soviet [sic] Reports Deaths of 31 in Azerbaijan Rioting”; (Taubman 1988d-g) “Soviet Armenians Mourn Their Dead” (Barringer 1988c); and “A Test of Change Explodes in Soviet [sic]” (Barringer and Keller 1988). This is despite the fact that almost all news on the conflict by The New York Times contained religious-confessional references in the actual content of the articles. One more difference is that The New York Times tried to set the Sumqayıt events of February 28-29 in the context of what had happened until then. Philip Taubman wrote that “The unrest stemmed from nationalist Armenian demands that Nagorno-Karabakh—a predominantly Armenian area now controlled by the Azerbaijan republic—be administratively attached to the Armenian republic” (Taubman 1988h) or: “It is considered highly likely that the disclosure of the two Azerbaijani deaths [a few hours before the riots in Sumqayıt by the official Azerbaijani radio in Baku on February 28] led to the violence” (Barringer 1988c).

The Military Phase of the Conflict: Reporting on Its Consequences

The flow of the Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia from late 1987, internally displaced Azerbaijanis from the NKAO in early 1988, two Azerbaijanis killed near Əsgəran in the NKAO on February 22, and 26 Armenians and 6 Azerbaijanis killed in Sumqayıt on February 28-29 was just the beginning of the casualties from the conflict. By the time full-fledged war started between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992, there were no Azerbaijanis left in Armenia, as all of them had fled to Azerbaijan. Also, many Armenians had left parts of Azerbaijan, except for Nagorny Karabakh, moving either to Nagorny Karabakh, hence becoming internally displaced within Azerbaijan, or to Russia, Armenia and other parts of the world, hence becoming refugees. By May 1994 a significant portion of Azerbaijani territories had been occupied by Armenia, with an estimated 25,000 people losing their lives on both sides. The entire Azerbaijani population from occupied Nagorny Karabakh and the surrounding seven districts became internally displaced in other parts of Azerbaijan.

The worst tragedy of the war happened during the night of February 25-26, 1992 in Xocalı (commonly spelled Khojaly, Khodjaly or Khojali), when hundreds of Azerbaijanis were massacred by Armenians (for different estimates ranging from 213 to 636, see de Waal 2013, 355, note 25). De Waal (2013, 184) noted that “At first many in the outside world were reluctant to believe it because most international media coverage of the conflict had hitherto portrayed the Armenians as the main victims of the conflict, rather than aggressors.” Some details of the tragedy were also reported about by the British and the US media in March 1992, but with less attention than was dedicated to the Sumqayıt events.

In the earlier section we listed the headlines of the researched British media on Sumqayıt, which very often contained references to the ethnicity of the Armenians as victims and the religion of Azerbaijanis as perpetrators with the key words “massacre”, “violence”, “bloodbath” and “slaughter”. Analysis of the Xocalı headlines does not demonstrate the same pattern. Here are headlines by The Times: “Facts of war hidden in fog-shrouded Karabakh” (Lieven 1992a); “Corpses litter hills in Karabakh” (Lieven 1992b); “Karabakh survivors flee to mountains” (Lieven 1992c) and “Bodies mark site of Karabakh massacre” (Lieven 1992d). Given the fact that The Times had portrayed the Armenians as victims by then, its headlines on the Xocalı massacre, which did not mention the ethnicity of those who were massacred, must have been perceived by those who did not read the news that the Armenians again became victims of the “Muslim” Azerbaijanis. These headlines on Xocalı by The Times contrasted also with its headline on March 4, namely “Azerbaijanis get ready to attack as forces pull out”, which as usual portrays the Azerbaijanis “attacking” as against a “defending” image of the Armenians.

The Guardian carried two headlines: “ARMY LEAVES KARABAKH TO ITS KILLINGS; Corpses confirm massacre by Armenians” (Waldron and Killen 1992), and “EYEWITNESS: THE VILLAGE WHERE THE VICTORS DARE NOT MOVE BY DAY; Armenians desperately try to deny the massacre of Azeris, which could yet paradoxically turn success into long-term defeat” (Waldron 1992); and The Financial Times carried one headline, namely “Azeris claim Armenians ‘killing hundreds’” (March 2, 1992). Helen Womack from The Independent was the only British journalist whose report was placed on the title page of this newspaper and had an explicit headline: “Azeris hunted down and shot in the forest; Refugees and fresh graves confirm massacre by Armenians” (1992a) and also “Armenians ‘hold Azeris hostage’” (1992b).

The New York Times headlines did not reveal any difference from its headlines on Sumqayıt, as there was no bias on religious or ethnic grounds: Evidence of a Massacre Emerges in Azerbaijan” and “Massacre by Armenians Being Reported” (March 3, 1992); “Armenians Block Exit By Former Soviet Army” (Schmemann 1992); “Former Soviet Troops Blamed in Ethnic Strife” (March 5, 1992); “A Final Goodbye in Azerbaijan” (March 6, 1992).

As for the content of the news on the Xocalı massacre, based on Reuters information of March 1, The Financial Times on March 2 reported that “AZERI refugees, many of whom walked for days across snow-covered mountains, yesterday [March 1, 1992] accused Armenian militants backed by Russian soldiers of killing hundreds in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.” On March 3, The Times correspondent Anatol Lieven reported:

Scattered amid the withered grass and bushes along a small valley and across the hillside beyond are the bodies of last Wednesday’s [February 26] massacre by Armenian forces of Azerbaijani refugees … In all, 31 bodies could be counted at the scene. At least another 31 have been taken into Agdam over the past five days. These figures do not include civilians reported killed when the Armenians stormed the Azerbaijani town of Khodjaly on Tuesday night [February 25]. The figures also do not include other as yet undiscovered bodies … Around the bodies we saw were scattered possessions, clothing and personal documents. The bodies themselves have been preserved by the bitter cold which killed others as they hid in the hills and forest after the massacre. All are the bodies of ordinary people, dressed in the poor, ugly clothing of workers.

Karl Waldron in Stepanakert and Brian Killen of Reuters in Ağdam reported for The Guardian on March 3, 1992: “fresh evidence emerged that Armenian militants had carried out a massacre of Azerbaijani civilians”. They quoted a Reuters photographer, Frederique Lengaigne, who saw “two trucks filled with Azeri corpses” near Ağdam: “In the first one I counted 35 and it looked as though there were almost as many in the second. Some had their heads cut off and many had been burned. They were all men and a few had been wearing khaki uniforms.” The New York Times had the same quotation by Lengaigne.

BBC TV’s first broadcast on the massacre was on March 3, 1992 by Ben Brown, who reported:

The dead were scattered high on the mountains. They had been trying to flee from Khodjaly to the town of Agdam, when they were, according to survivors, caught in an Armenian ambush. A column of refugees was cut down by gunfire. Police here in Agdam told me today that 120 bodies have been retrieved so far, but the Azeris claim as many as 1,000 of their people may have died. Such figures are hard to verify, but there is a little doubt that there has been a massacre of innocent civilians. The bodies I have seen here of some victims had been shot at close range and some of the corpses have been horribly mutilated. Relatives have been up in the mountains retrieving their dead. We were told that 27 of the bodies have now been buried in Agdam.

The next day, on March 4, Ben Brown reported on 78 freshly dug graves that he had counted in the park in Ağdam, which was turned into a cemetery.

Helen Womack from The Independent reported that the “exact number of victims is still unclear, but there can be little doubt that Azeri civilians were massacred by Armenian fighters in the snowy mountains of Nagorny Karabakh last week”. She saw “75 freshly dug graves in one cemetery” in addition to “four mutilated corpses” in the Ağdam mosque on March 3, as well as “women and children with bullet wounds, in a makeshift hospital in a string of railway carriages at the station” (1992a).

The occupation of Xocalı was followed by that of Şuşa (Shusha), the largest predominantly Azerbaijani town of Nagorny Karabakh, on May 8, 1992. After Şuşa, it was the turn of Laçın (Lachyn, Lachin), outside NK, which would open up a corridor between this region and Armenia. Thomas Goltz reported that the Laçın corridor “was used to get troops and supplies into Karabakh” (1993). BBC TV’s Ben Brown, one of the first Western correspondents who travelled along the Laçın corridor, reported on May 22, 1992 of the trucks on this road: “From the Armenian capital Yerevan they have been bringing food, fuel and medicines, but almost certainly they have been bringing weapons and ammunition as well.” The occupation of Laçın on May 18, 1992 was followed by the occupation of the town of Kəlbəcər (Kalbajar, Kelbajar, Kelbadzhar) in order to open up the second corridor to Armenia on April 2, 1993, and of the districts of Ağdam, Cəbrayıl, Füzuli, Qubadlı and Zəngilan between July 23 and October 29, 1993.

Armenia denies its involvement in the occupation of Azerbaijani territories in Karabakh. However, the researched British and the US media outlets contain evidence disproving this, some of which is worth quoting in this section. The Guardian wrote on May 23, 1992 that “Rejecting Armenia’s claim that it had nothing to do with the seizure of Laçın, Russia [Russian Foreign Ministry—K.I-L.] said no circumstances gave a state the right to annex a foreign territory.” John Lloyd from The Financial Times wrote on May 26, 1992 that “On May 17, Armenian forces from Karabakh and Armenia launched attacks on the town of Lachin.” Thomas Goltz wrote in The Guardian on April 8, 1993 that “Not only the government of Azerbaijan but eyewitnesses to the fall of Kelbadzhar point out that the assault was mounted from Armenia itself and that the new, northern corridor to Karabakh is more than 60 miles wide and represents a de facto annexation of the entire region.” “One thing is certain”, Anatol Lieven from The Times wrote on April 14, 1993 that “the Kelbadzhar region was attacked from Armenia itself, to the west, as well as from Nagorno-Karabakh to the east. The Armenian government continues to claim that only “Karabakh defence forces” are involved in the fighting, but few Western observers attach any credence to this claim.” Leslie H. Gelb from The New York Times wrote on May 22, 1992 that

[US] Officials do not accept Yerevan’s assertion that it has no control of Armenian irregulars in Nagorno[-Karabakh] and Nakhichevan … They believe … that the Armenians … are “trying to create military facts on the ground while our hands are tied by our elections—just the way the Serbs are doing it in Bosnia”.

Alexis Rowell from The Guardian narrated the following story on April 21, 1994, which also serves as evidence on Armenia’s direct involvement in the occupation of Azerbaijani territories:

The hammering on the door started before dawn. By first light, Lily had lost her son, aged 18, to the Armenian National Army. It has begun forcibly recruiting men in Armenia to fight against Azeri government forces in and around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh … The Armenian government has always maintained that its troops are not involved in the fighting against Azerbaijan. But tucked away on a hill above Yerevan is the Yeriblu military cemetery, where hundreds of soldiers from the Armenian capital who died in Nagorno-Karabakh are buried.

New graves are being dug every day.

The Armenian opposition claims that some 750,000 people—about a quarter of the population—have left Armenia over the last year. Most presumably went because of the dire economic situation caused by six years of undeclared war, but increasingly it seems many of those departing are young men fleeing the draft.

Reasons Behind the Coverage and Factors Affecting Western Public Opinion

Edward Said once wrote that,

often enough the reporter is sent to a strange country with no preparation or experience, just because he or she is canny at picking up things quickly or happens already to be in the general vicinity of where front-page news is happening. So instead of trying to find out more about the country, the reporter takes hold of what is nearest at hand, usually a cliché or some bit of journalistic wisdom that readers at home are unlikely to challenge. (Said 1997, li-lii)

Said’s views are also applicable to the coverage of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by the media outlets studied. The research has demonstrated that the British and US correspondents lacked knowledge of both the republics, including their history, and the history of the conflict between them, which thus affected their reporting, interpretations and definitions. One reason for this was that the Western journalists were first and foremost Kremlinologists dealing with Soviet-wide politics and policies, not specialists in either Armenia and/or Azerbaijan. This made them dependent on “what is nearest at hand”, and in most cases they take for granted narratives that they were not eyewitnesses to, and which they did not investigate themselves.

Moreover, Western journalists were based in Moscow, not in the places where the events discussed took place, namely Azerbaijan and Armenia. They only made rare visits to these republics after the conflict had started, because of the restrictions imposed by the Soviet authorities (Fisk 1988; Newsnight, BBC TV, March 4, 1988; Taubman 1988a, 1988f; Walker and Simmons 1988). For that reason, they depended on second- and third-hand information sources, which affected their views not only on the history of the region and the conflict, but also on its current phase, especially in 1988-1991. The sources used by the Western correspondents varied. One of them was the Soviet official information made available through the Soviet Foreign Ministry and/or Soviet media. The Soviet authorities and media intentionally hid or delayed news about conflict-related developments in Armenia and Azerbaijan, including human casualties of the conflict, in order to avoid further ethnic confrontations and their consequences.

Alongside official information, there were alternative channels of news, with dissidents based in Moscow and Yerevan being the most active. One of them was Sergey Grigoryants, editor of the dissident magazine Glasnost’, who was defined by The Guardian as the “main conduit for news from Armenia” when the “authorities barred access to Westerners” to Armenia and Azerbaijan (Walker and Simmons 1988). The news provided by dissidents was often referred to by the researched media, even though The New York Times admitted that “the dissidents … are not always reliable sources of information” (Taubman 1988a). The dissident journalist Grigoryants, who was based in Moscow, and Mofses Gargisyan, editor of a dissident magazine in Yerevan, had access to conflict-related information in both Armenia and the NKAO in Azerbaijan. However, they did not provide Western journalists with news about the Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia in 1987 and internally displaced Azerbaijanis from the NKAO in early 1988, or about the Azerbaijanis killed by the Armenians near Əsgəran in the NKAO on February 22, 1988. In contrast with their passiveness in distributing news about the Azerbaijani casualties, Grigoryants and his dissident friends were very active in providing foreign reporters with all kinds of rumours about the Sumqayıt disturbances in Azerbaijan. These considerations can serve as evidence for the unreliability of dissident sources.

As well as dissidents and Armenian diaspora representatives in Russia, another source of information was Armenians in the UK, France, the USA and Lebanon. The Armenians had old, sizeable and organised diaspora in these countries dating back many centuries and developing over time up to the 1980s, with their last wave from the Middle East to France, the UK and the USA. At the beginning of the current stage of the conflict, one of the Armenian diaspora representatives, George Deukmejian, had been serving as the governor of California, USA, since 1982 (for more on Armenian diaspora in these countries, see Dekmekjian 2004, 424-426, 430-435). The diaspora Armenians paid regular visits to Armenia. Robert Fisk, The Times correspondent reporting from Lebanon, noted that although Western correspondents based in Moscow had been prevented from visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan, members of the Lebanese Armenian community had continued to travel to Yerevan (1988). Often references to their Armenian sources, including diaspora representatives—related or unrelated to the absence or delay of official information—played an important role in one-sided coverage of the events. The following note by The Guardian is worth quoting: “the Armenian version, filtered through partisans in Moscow and the external diaspora outside, is the only one we usually hear”.

Western journalists and Armenians, ranging from ordinary and dissident Armenians in Moscow to Armenian officials, nationalists and ordinary Armenians in Yerevan and Stepanakert, were in frequent contact via phone (the list of evidence is long, so some of them are: Barringer 1988c; Crawshaw 1988; Taubman 1988b, 1988c, 1988g; Walker, C. 1988a, 1988f; Walker, M. 1988d; Cornwell 1989). Armenians in Armenia made frequent phone calls, not only to Russia, but also to the USA, to representatives of the Armenian diaspora there. The Armenian newspapers in the USA were “flooded with phone calls from Armenian-Americans” like, for example, Apo Boghigian, editor of the Glendale-based Armenian-language newspaper Asbarez: one of its best news sources from Armenia in February 1988 was a “telephone operator” in Yerevan (The New York Times, Taubman 1988b).

The frequent contact between Western journalists and Armenians contrasted with the former’s rare contact with Azerbaijanis in 1988-1991, most of whom were officials in Baku, as well as a few ordinary Azerbaijanis. There was almost no contact with Azerbaijani diaspora representatives in Russia, the UK and the USA. This might partly be explained by the fact that the Azerbaijanis mostly resided in Azerbaijan, to which the Western journalists made rare visits, and in neighbouring countries. The Azerbaijani diaspora in Moscow, where the Western correspondents were based, was young, weak and disorganised, whereas the one in the West consisted mostly of the Azerbaijanis of Iran, who had fled to Europe and the USA after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Only a very small part of the Azerbaijani diaspora in the Western countries was made up of descendants of the early twentieth-century Azerbaijanis who fled to Turkey and Iran after the Sovietisation of Azerbaijan, with a small part of them then moving on to Europe and the USA. The Azerbaijani diaspora expanded during the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union with the Azerbaijanis from the Azerbaijan Republic, but it was still very small during the period researched.

Moreover, ordinary Azerbaijanis were caught unprepared for the Armenian territorial claims campaign. The Armenians, both in Armenia and the diaspora, were well-prepared and experienced in this regard. They had been making these claims to Soviet Azerbaijan at the level of top Soviet officials and Azerbaijani leaders for many decades before 1987 (Imranli 2006, 175-181). During that year and in 1988, Armenians made their territorial claims public in the context of the perestroika and glasnost declared by Gorbachev, and this was how the ordinary Azerbaijanis became aware of them.

Armenians tried to get in contact with the Western journalists from different parts of the world to express their views about the subject. This was in sharp contrast with the behaviour of the Azerbaijani authorities, who were reluctant to see the displacement of Azerbaijanis and their killing becoming news stories and thus escalating the conflict. This in its turn was skilfully used by the Armenians to present themselves as the victims of the Azerbaijanis. The Armenian propaganda, which was in many cases bought into by the reporters, was also helped by the fact that the Azerbaijanis were Muslim and the majority of them were of Shi’a confession. They were associated with the Shi’a Muslims of Iran, who had an ongoing, troubled relationship with the West since the Islamic Revolution there in 1979. The frequent references to the conflict as a Christian-Shi’a Muslim one by all researched media outlets were evidence of Western stereotypes influencing the reporters’ perceptions, and thus their coverage. The news headlines, which are usually chosen by editors rather than field reporters, with the emphasis on the religion of the Azerbaijanis rather than their ethnicity, especially by The Times, also testify to the influence of the West’s relations with Iran on the media coverage. However, terms such as “riots” or “race riots” to describe the disturbances in Azerbaijan are explained by the serious social disturbances on racial grounds in the UK (van Dijk 1991, 2) and the USA in the 1980s, which also influenced the perceptions of the Western reporters of the events abroad.

The Armenian nationalist leaders took Western interests and ideologies, which regarded the Soviet Union as its political and ideological enemy, into due account. In order to win Western sympathy, they presented the Armenian territorial claims to Nagorny Karabakh in Azerbaijan as a campaign for the rectification of the “injustice” done to Armenians by the Soviet government, with the personal involvement of the notorious Stalin. This found sympathy with Western reporters and editors, and thus affected their coverage of the history of Nagorny Karabakh within Azerbaijan, which was mostly based on Armenian sources, including Western historians of Armenian origin.

The West saw the conflicts in the Soviet Union as instrumental in the weakening and eventual collapse of the Soviet system. This guaranteed strong interest in their details, and sympathy from Western reporters for those parties who were the most active. After 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan and Armenia regained their independence, Western journalists could visit both countries more often than before. They had direct access to information from both sides, as well as eyewitness accounts of the conflict and its consequences. Despite the fact that the reporters were influenced by the perceptions of previous years, the coverage of this period can contribute to study of the conflict and to understanding it better.

Last but not least, it is important to note the impact of Western media coverage on Western public opinion. Here, it is worth quoting one American diplomat in Baku, who told The Guardian in 1993 that instead of sending it to Azerbaijan “the state department frequently sends his mail to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, by mistake” (Rugman 1993). The quotation is illustrative of how Azerbaijan was less known to the Western public, which is also proven by personal observations in the discussed period. This contrasted with the better-known Armenia, most probably because of the role of their diaspora and lobby in the Western countries, especially in the USA. However, it can be suggested that Azerbaijan would have appeared in a less favourable light than Armenia, even for the small percentage of the English-language Western public, who could have some opinion on the conflict based on its coverage by the researched media outlets.


This study of the coverage of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by the leading British media outlets, and its comparison with that of The New York Times, has revealed that they contained a great many news reports and editorials on the current stage of the conflict between February 1988 and May 1994. The research has showed that the views of the Armenian side on the discussed issues were featured more frequently than Azerbaijani ones. In various cases the reporters took the Armenian perspective on the issues for granted, issues that they were not eyewitnesses to or specialists in, or did not investigate themselves.

The reasons for this coverage can be explained by various factors. One of them was that the Western journalists reported from Moscow and could only visit the conflict-affected countries in rare cases when the Soviet authorities allowed them to do so. Another factor was that these reporters were primarily Kremlinologists focused on Moscow politics who had no specialist knowledge of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which also made them dependent on secondary sources. Other factors included the active cooperation of Armenians with Western reporters, the former ranging from dissidents, nationalists and ordinary Armenians, both in Armenia and the diaspora, to officials in Armenia; the presence of a strong Christian Armenian diaspora and lobby in the West; the absence of such a diaspora and lobby of Muslim Azerbaijanis in the West; and the rare contact between Western reporters and Azerbaijanis, especially in 1988-1991. One more important factor was the Armenian framing of the history of the Nagorny Karabakh region within Azerbaijan and the conflict as a Soviet legacy. This won the sympathy of Western reporters, who perceived the Armenian territorial claims campaign as a struggle against the Soviet system which had done them “injustice”, by “separating” the Nagorny Karabakh region from Armenia and “giving” it to Azerbaijan.

The researched media outlets contain many eyewitness accounts, dating mostly from 1991 onwards, when the reporters had direct access to the conflict-affected republics. These reports can be regarded as contributing to the study and better understanding of the current stage of the conflict. However, because of the headlines, which in the majority of cases were misleading, vague and ambiguous, most of these accounts would only be noticed by careful readers. Moreover, through discourse analysis this article has demonstrated that the news reports, including their headlines, emphasised the religious and confessional dimension. This can be explained by the complicated relationship between the West and Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the majority of whose Muslims shared the same Shi’a confession with the majority of Azerbaijani Muslims. This fact influenced the perceptions of the Western reporters and their coverage. The media terminology of the conflict was also influenced by the “race riots” in the UK and the USA in the 1980s.

The findings of the study on the coverage of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict by English-language Western media outlets allow us to make comparisons with the Western media coverage of other conflicts in the world with due consideration of factors such as the context in which the events were reported, correspondents’ sources of information, and Western interests, ideology and stereotypes. These analyses also allow us to speculate about the possible impact of this coverage on Western public opinion. Given the role of headlines, and that of the frequent featuring of the position of one side of the conflict at the expense of the other in the public perception of news reports, it can be suggested that the Armenians were viewed more favourably by the West than the Azerbaijanis. This is despite the fact that, in the period discussed and after, Azerbaijanis were still less well-known in the West than Armenians.