Aleksand Lapshin, who was deported from Belarus to Azerbaijan last Tuesday, is accused of violating Azerbaijan’s state border laws, visiting Nagorno-Karabakh without Azerbaijan’s official consent and calling for the region’s independence in his blog posts, which appear to have been deleted from his blog following his arrest.
At a press conference in January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov weighed in on the issue of Lapshin’s extradition to Azerbaijan. Lavrov told reporters that Russia is against the extradition of Alexander Lapshin. "Russia is opposed to the criminalization of visits by journalists or other people to this territory or other territories in different regions. Moscow disagrees with the extradition to a third country of Russians detained abroad," Russian Foreign Minister said. In his interview with Russian media outlet RIA Novosti, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that he is baffled and outraged by “unnecessary politicization” of this issue, adding that Lapshin has been placed on Interpol’s wanted list on legal grounds and detained in accordance with the Chisinau Convention on legal aid and legal relations among CIS members.
It is worth mentioning that differences in opinion on certain matters between Azerbaijani authorities and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are not limited only to the Laphin’s case. At the same press conference in January, Lavrov also told reporters that Nagorno-Karabakh is not Azerbaijan’s internal matter. These comments drew criticism from Azerbaijani authorities, who emphasized that the 2016 April clashes were, in fact, internal matter of Azerbaijan.
The claim that Azerbaijan would not have granted permission to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh even if Lapshin were to ask for appears to be false. In the past, the Azerbaijani government allowed foreign journalists to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2015, Baku gave permission to the BBC World Service reporter Rayhan Demytrie to travel to Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, one of the main reasons why it is so difficult for journalists to get permission to visit Nagorno-Karabakh is because Azerbaijani authorities are wary of distorted coverage that the conflict might receive, especially in the age of “fake news.” There have been many instances when this concern seemed particularly justified. During the April 2016 clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh some media outlets ran now completely debunked stories about ISIS involvement in the conflict. Some media outlets even referenced a fake news story about nonexistent ISIS forces being deployed by Turkey to Azerbaijan.
What’s more, banning people from visiting separatist territories or putting sanctions on them for doing so is not a new practice. In February 2015, Iosif Kobzon, a famous Russian singer and member of the Russian State Duma, was put on the EU sanction list and banned from traveling to the Union because he visited the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and made statements supporting separatists. So far, more than 140 people have been subject to visa bans by the EU for their actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
There is no doubt that both mass media and social media play a crucial role in ongoing conflicts. Such a role can take two opposing forms. Either the media can actively engage in the conflict and instigate violence – often deliberately, in other cases unintentionally – or it can try to stay objective and contribute to the mitigation of the conflict. More often than not, however, social media nowadays tends to act as a catalyst for destruction and promote the very worst in people, by producing lies about genocidal threats, awakening old fears, and dehumanizing “the other.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with Lapshin as well. It is not given, however, that both social media and mass media should always play a destructive role in conflicts. On the contrary, they can and should actively engage in helping to prevent further escalation of violence. Journalists have the power to defuse tensions before they even reach a dangerous point. At the same time, providing distorted coverage of the conflict and contributing to the dangerous pattern of omission and misrepresentation which just increases tensions between the sides is not the way to achieve that.