Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28335-20 Hajiyev v spectator.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Mikayil Hajiyev complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that spectator.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Exclusive: Armenian PM on Azerbaijani conflict”, published on 29 September 2020.
2. The article was an interview with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The interview focused on the “new round of fighting” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the “disputed” Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The interview was prefaced with a brief explanation of the conflict and its history. The summary began “[o]n Sunday [27 September 2020] Azerbaijan began shelling Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh — a disputed piece of territory in the Caucasus peopled primarily by the Armenians but owned, at least on paper, by Azerbaijan.” It then stated that “[i]n the 1920s, Soviet administrators, disregarding demography, had placed Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan” and said that Nikol Pashinyan “is known as the ‘Gandhi of the Caucasus’ for his part in the peaceful pro-democracy revolution some years ago.” The article also reported that Turkey was “relocating […] mujahedin” to the region.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the opening of the article – which said that “[o]n Sunday, Azerbaijan began shelling Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh” – was misleading, as Azerbaijan had not initiated the new round of fighting and had only initiated shelling as a counter-defensive measure. He said that it was also inaccurate to describe Nagorno-Karabakh as “a disputed piece of territory”; he said it is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, and this had been demonstrated by a series of UN resolutions requesting Armenia’s withdrawal from the territory, which the article had omitted to mention. He also said that it was inaccurate to state that “Soviet administrators” had “placed Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan”, as the territory had been part of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders prior to Soviet intervention. He went on to say that the article was biased, as it described Armenian’s Prime Minister as “Gandhi of the Caucasus” and that this was solely the article writer’s opinion and had not been correctly distinguished as such. He then noted that, while the article reported that Turkey had deployed mujahedin to the region, there was no concrete evidence to show that this was indeed the case.
4. The publication said it did not accept that the Code had been breached. It said that it was not in dispute that on 27 September 2020 Azerbaijan had begun shelling Nagorno-Karabakh, and noted that the article did not state what had prompted the shelling, nor that it was the first move in the fresh round of hostilities. It went on to say that, where there was an ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, it was not inaccurate for the publication to describe the territory as disputed, and that it had made clear that “on paper”, the territory was part of Azerbaijan. It did not consider that omitting to refer to UN resolutions stating that the territory was owned by Azerbaijan rendered the article misleading or inaccurate, where it made clear that Azerbaijan owned the territory. It also added that the resolutions had been mentioned in its counterpoint interview with the Azerbaijani Government’s head of foreign policy affairs. Regarding the placement of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijani territory by “Soviet administrators”, it showed that a treaty between Turkey and the Soviet Republic in 1921 had determined that the territory was to be placed within Azerbaijan, after some deliberation over which country to place the territory in and after at one point intending to place the territory within Armenian borders. It further said that concerns that the article was biased did not engage the terms of Clause 1, and set out that its writers were free to express their opinions and use facts of their choosing to support arguments. Nevertheless, it said that the characterisation of the Armenian Prime Minister as “Gandhi of the Caucasus” was not the opinion of the writer nor was it presented as such, being prefaced with the proviso that the Prime Minster “is known” as such. It said that during the article writer’s time in the region in 2018, local activists had described the Prime Minister using this phrase. As such, it did not accept that it was inaccurate to state that he is “known” as “Gandhi of the Caucasus.” The publication also said that it had been widely reported that Turkey had deployed mujahedin to the region, and supplied two recent news articles to support its position on this point.
5. The complainant accepted that it was under dispute which nation had prompted hostilities; however, he maintained that the article presented as fact that Azerbaijan had prompted hostilities by way of shelling Nagorno-Karabakh. He also reiterated his position that the territory was not “disputed” but was internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, and said that the region would be better described as being “occupied”. He said that, regardless of whether the Soviet Republic had set out in a treaty in 1921 that the region was part of Azerbaijan, the territory was part of the country prior to Soviet intervention, from 1918-1920, therefore he maintained that it was inaccurate to describe the region has having been “placed” in Azerbaijan by “Soviet administrators”; it was already part of the country. He also expressed concern at the publication’s position that it was not obliged to be unbiased.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. The article reported that Azerbaijan began shelling Armenian positions in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh on 29 September 2020; this was not disputed by either party, regardless of what prompted the shelling. The article did not make any claim as to which country had taken action first. As such, the Committee found that it was not inaccurate nor misleading for the article to report that “[o]n Sunday, Azerbaijan began shelling Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Furthermore, the assertion was made in the language of ongoing conflict, referring to Armenian “positions” and stating that the shelling was part of “a new round of fighting”, which indicated the reported actions were part of an existing conflict. The Committee found no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
7. There was disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan as to the motivation, nature, purpose and extent of the ongoing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, given there was unquestionably an ongoing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and its sovereignty, the Committee considered that the publication was entitled to describe the territory as “disputed”, and also noted that the article made clear that “on paper” it is owned by Azerbaijan. The Committee found no breach of Clause 1 on this points.
8. Both parties agreed that, in the 1920s, a treaty between the Soviet Union and Turkey established that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan. As such, the Committee found that it was not inaccurate nor misleading for the article to state that “[i]n the 1920s, Soviet administrators, disregarding demography, had placed Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan.” As such, the Committee found no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. It was widely reported in late 2020 that Turkey had deployed mujahedin to the Caucasus region. While the Committee understood the complainant’s position that there was no concrete evidence to prove this unequivocally, it noted that mujahedin had given anonymous interviews to news outlets stating that they had been deployed to the region and as such the Committee found that there was sufficient basis to report that Turkey had deployed mujahedin to the region. The Committee found that the publication had not breached Clause 1 on this point.
10. The Committee considered that, by stating that the Armenian Prime Minister “is known as the ‘Gandhi of the Caucasus’ for his part in the peaceful pro-democracy revolution some years ago”, the publication was not referring to the writer’s personal view of the Prime Minister. Further, where the publication showed that the Prime Minister had been described as such, the Committee found that it was not inaccurate nor misleading to say that he “is known as the ‘Gandhi of Caucasus'”, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 30/09/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 28/01/2021Back to ruling listing