25 Dec 2023
Supporting Transnational Independent Journalism in Turkey and Armenia: How Funding Organizations Can Support Stronger Strategic Collaboration through Peer-to-Peer Learning for Peace
In the age of modern media platforms, the global dissemination of information holds unparalleled sway in shaping our global consciousness and imagined communities. Information dissemination at this magnitude has far reaching implications in the realm of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Known as an “information war”, the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an example of how modern conflicts have taken on digital dimensions, blurring the lines between physical battlegrounds and the virtual domain. Turkey’s direct involvement in the War not only altered the trajectory of the three decades-long conflict, but also further complicated the already intricate relationship between Armenia and Turkey. In this context, the role of information in shaping and complicating both the narratives of conflict and the diplomatic ties between these countries is calling for attention to journalism as a profession in transition.
The 2020 War and subsequent developments that led to Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, presented precarious material, funding, and security-related challenges for any journalist who attempts to share critical perspectives on the conflict. As a result, narratives perpetuated via dominant state-funded media continue to hold the most sway in public consciousness. Turkey’s pre-existing biases against Armenia have been reinforced, while the Turkey’s intervention provoked the collective trauma in Armenia, intensifying prejudices against and fear of Turks. In this environment of heightened societal hostility, critical voices have sought refuge in independent news platforms.
Despite their limited visibility on mainstream search engines, independent media plays a crucial role in the region by engaging in politically relevant and ethically sound journalism, embodying the essence of a “fourth estate.” And yet, among these financially independent outlets, almost all rely on funding from European organizations . This financial support encompasses a wide range of assistance initiatives, including organizational capacity building and skills development for individual journalists. These initiatives cover areas such as fact-checking, digital news production, journalist security, and reporting on marginalized gender groups.
With this alternative media ownership model comes a host of additional challenges including the inheritance of European perspectives and assumptions on fundamental concepts like freedom of thought, human rights, and democracy. Recently, those in the independent journalism ecosystem have begun to think critically about the agendas and values of these external organizations and whether they are compatible with the principles and practices of independent journalism in the specific context of Armenia and Turkey.
Financial Independence, External Funding, and Local Journalism
There is a disconnect between funding bodies and the operational realities of journalists, hampering effective support. Foreign funds and their experts often presume knowledge that is far from the truth in the local landscape.
Take, for example, training programs, an indispensable component of funding schemes that aim to raise journalistic quality and professional ethics. Currently, experts who are well-informed in their discipline and practice, serve as trainers. Yet, these experts are often not familiar with local knowledge and practices, resulting in Armenian and Turkish journalists becoming alienated from these types of programs.
One Armenian independent journalist shared their experience with one of their organizations’ foreign news partners, saying, “[they] came to Armenia for a workshop or training that was absolutely not relevant to Armenia or the regional context in general. It would be very relevant if you were a reporter in the UK or US, but not here. Because trainers did not do their homework or familiarize themselves with the Armenian context…”
In interviews, journalists from both countries have revealed their discomfort with the highly technical process of developing grant proposals and applications, diverting their energy from primary reporting duties. Even when media organizations diligently seek out suitable funds and maintain systematic efforts, such as through dedicated fundraising units, they remain vulnerable to sudden changes in funding support or shifts in eligibility criteria of foreign funding organizations.
Hope for diplomacy: Collaboration for Peace Journalism
It is not to say that there is no place for foreign funders to support ethical journalism in these societies, however. The relationship between Armenia and Turkey has been marked by historical tensions and conflicts, including the closed border since 1993 and the absence of diplomatic ties. However, I propose that through journalism there exists a glimmer of hope for building bridges between the two nations.
Currently, independent news networks are an untapped resource that could help bridge the current information gap between the two societies. Despite having many shared interests and challenges, independent media outlets have limited means of collaborating to mitigate their shared training gaps and to improve critical information and resource flow across the border. Funders that support cross-border dialogue programs for Armenia and Turkey can play a very effective role in addressing this disconnection in their training activities.
My research demonstrates a growing interest among independent journalists to visit one another’s newsrooms. Younger journalists, in particular, are more open to cross-border cooperation, even in the face of security risks. A journalist from Turkey explained to me why she would be willing to take part in an exchange program. She said, “… this is exactly the part that is missing: what the people there think, what they feel, how they live… Because here, both at school and in the family, we have been raised with a certain perspective. Naturally, people who don’t speak a foreign language don’t know what the other side is saying, [we] are not aware of them.” She went on to explain, “even if today they offer me a precondition like, ‘Come here, but you will only listen to us without talking because we need to be heard first’, I would want to go. In the end, the job of a journalist is first to listen to the parties without criticizing them, without accusing them, and without asking judgmental questions.”
Today, this type of cooperation between Armenian and Turkish journalists has the potential to enhance the accuracy and depth of reporting, allowing them to better understand and convey the realities of each other’s countries and challenge harmful narratives. Along with the peacebuilding benefits that would come from such programs, many journalists express interest in collaboration as an opportunity to develop professionally.
Suggestions for funders of journalism and civil dialogue
Putting peer-to-peer learning practices at the center of training activities is critical for enhancing the capacity for transnational communication and cooperation between independent journalists. Funders interested in supporting peacebuilding in the region should consider the following recommendations:
Fund projects based on peer-to-peer learning: Journalists need to learn from their colleagues on the other side of the border. By using more local journalists as trainers, funders can support the development of a more collaborative environment where journalists from both countries can interact, share experiences, and coordinate resources and information flow more effectively. This will contribute to improving relations between Armenia and Turkey by helping to bridge differences in understanding and building trust.
Provide support for designing training activities according to fields of local expertise: Each journalist has his/her area of expertise, relevant to their local and national contexts. Funders who wish to see the capacity of independent media outlets grow should support training activities that focus on relevant topics that are in line with the domestic dynamics and needs of both countries including investigative journalism, conflict journalism, and gender-sensitive journalism.
Finance a self-governed cross-border solidarity network among journalists: This cross-border network can serve as a platform for sharing information, discussing common challenges, and collaborating on stories that promote better understanding between the two communities. Data security and moderation of this platform should be planned carefully to protect its members and to ensure a safe space for fruitful exchange.
In the short term, these activities will be practical first steps to develop a network of journalists, including potential trainers, which will also serve to generate reliable, first-hand, and up-to-date information about each other. While in the longer term, such work will help to establish peace journalism as the ultimate form of ethical journalism for the development of both credible and healthy Armenia-Turkey relations.
 I leave out those news organizations in Armenia with Russian footprints.
The research that resulted in this paper has been funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.