New study examines environmental coverage in the South Caucasus

Rasmin Aliyev, an independent journalist murdered in Azerbaijan.

Rasmin Aliyev, an independent journalist murdered in Azerbaijan. Image: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Can Western news organizations help fill the environmental news and information gap left by local media in the three former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia?
Maybe in part, but there are still many news holes left unfilled. And the impact of foreign media coverage is uncertain in a region where press rights are ignored, where governments often are opaque and where those governments are reluctant to spend money to remedy environmental woes.
All three countries rank poorly in press freedom ratings from such organizations as Reporters without Borders and Freedom House, with Azerbaijan among the world’s worst-of-the-worst.
Those are some of the conclusions in a new study by Knight Center director Eric Freedman, research director Bruno Takahashi, former doctoral research assistant Christine Carmichael and University of St. Thomas journalism professor Mark Neuzil, who has been a Knight Center guest lecturer.

Freedman delivered the team’s paper in Washington at a Central Eurasian Studies Society conference panel, “Environmental Policies and Practices.”
The research team combined content analysis of three years of environmental coverage in EurasiaNet and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with interviews from journalists for the two nonprofit English-language news services. EurasiaNet is based in New York City and IWPR is headquartered in London.
One key finding was that the two organizations published far more stories about energy than any other environmental issue in the region. That was no surprise given controversies concerning hydropower and energy exploration in the Caucasus, as well as the economic and political ramifications of energy policy. Water ranked a distance second in the number of stories.
The analysis also looked at the journalists’ use of expert, advocacy and “ordinary people” as news sources and whether the resulting stories were balanced.
The study discussed several major implications of the findings, including the comparative freedom to report that journalists for foreign news outlets have in the Caucasus, the potential of foreign coverage to inform and influence decision-making by foreign funders and donors, and the fact that coverage by EurasiaNet and IWPR sometimes paves the way for local media to report stories that otherwise would be ignored.
Other panelists were professor Norman Graham, director of MSU’s Center for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies, Jeanene Mitchell of the University of Washington and John Anderson of Washington and Lee University.