This is the second article in the series devoted to media that work in exile. You can read the first article about Belarusian media here.
For almost a decade, the independent outlet Meydan TV, or “The Public Square'' in English, has covered the news in Azerbaijan while based abroad in Berlin, Germany. A partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the outlet broadcasts in Russian, English and Azerbaijani.
“Many of [Meydan TV’s] founders were in exile or decided to leave [Azerbaijan],” said Matthew Kasper, who heads the outlet today. “They believed that Azerbaijan lacks the space for public debate, and they wanted to change that.” Emin Milli is one of these founders. He had faced pressure from the Azerbaijani authorities and spent more than a year in jail before fleeing the country.
An online media site that prioritizes video content, Meydan TV focuses its reporting on issues of corruption, politics and citizens’ rights. It is one of the largest independent media outlets serving an Azerbaijani audience today, said Kasper, comparable in size to the Azerbaijani services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC.
Meydan TV’s content is distributed primarily on social media, in large part due to its website having been blocked in Azerbaijan for the last five years, explained Kasper. The outlet has nearly 940,000 followers on Instagram and almost 790,000 on Facebook. More than 520,000 users follow Meydan TV on YouTube. According to Kasper, the site itself receives approximately 80,000-90,000 visitors every month.
Press freedom in Azerbaijan
Ranked 167 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Azerbaijan’s news industry is divided largely between opposition and pro-government outlets, according to this report from Media Landscapes. Opposition media outlets have come under pressure for their independent reporting, while pro-government outlets controlled by the state have received tangible benefits, such as apartments, as a perk.
Meydan TV has some contributing reporters based in Azerbaijan. These journalists have come under pressure from authorities in the country. On different occasions, they have been banned from traveling abroad, received death threats, and had their phones hacked to be spied on, according to Kasper. He added that Meydan TV’s Facebook account has been compromised several times, as well.
Meydan TV closely monitors events and developments inside Azerbaijan to ensure the safety of its employees. The editorial team also consults with experts, produces best practice reporting manuals, and trains its journalists on digital and physical security.
The benefits of operating from abroad
In recent years, Azerbaijani authorities have adjusted their strategies to suppress independent reporting. While they haven’t detained journalists as often, explained Kasper, they have increased the frequency of digital attacks. Overall, the situation remains difficult for journalists. “Over the last two years, the situation has gone from very bad to simply bad,” said Kasper.
By operating abroad, Meydan TV’s editorial team avoids many of these efforts to stifle their reporting. The outlet has also set up its servers outside of Azerbaijan, which allows them to safeguard important documents and accounts, beyond the reach of Azerbaijani authorities.
The journalists working at Meydan TV are motivated by a desire to produce high-quality, independent reporting, while helping readers recognize and stand up for their rights, according to Kasper. “We try to make Azerbaijan a better place, and we give people an opportunity to overcome disinformation,” he said. “You might not be able to stop corruption at the highest levels, but at least you’ll fight it at the lower ones.”
Kasper continued: “You wrote about corruption, and nobody was fired? The changes are still taking place. People’s mindsets are changing. That’s definitely better than nothing — and sometimes the status quo changes extremely fast.”
Meydan TV is primarily funded through grants, with additional support coming from donations and crowdfunding, according to Kasper. The editorial team always has its eyes peeled, too, for new ways to monetize content.
To secure grant funding, Meydan TV is upfront about the context it must navigate in Azerbaijan, explaining why its operations are based abroad and the advantages this offers. “Sometimes we run into difficulties when the grant makers want to support media outlets inside the country, but usually it’s just a bureaucratic issue,” Kasper explained. “We have to explain why the media outlet works from abroad, and usually a compromise can be found.”
Media outlets should identify funding opportunities with objectives that align with their own, and make realistic promises about what they can deliver, advised Kasper. It’s also critical, he added, to maintain professionalism, meet deadlines, and manage the funding responsibly. “All of this helps to earn trust,” said Kasper.
For fellow journalists and newsrooms who find themselves in similar situations reporting from abroad, Kasper advises seeking guidance from those already navigating these scenarios — among them these Belarusian journalists, for instance.
This article was originally published by our Russian site and translated by Marina Pustilnik.