Covering the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Hostilities erupted once again on September 27, 2020, between the forces of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As of October 9, over 300 people had been killed, according to news reports.

Major population centers such as Stepanakert, the region’s capital, and Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, have been targeted, including critical infrastructure like bridges and power stations, as reported by Eurasianet. Drone strikes, shelling, and heavy artillery fire are commonplace in what continues to be a fast-moving and dynamic situation, according to the Associated Press.

As of October 9, at least two journalists have been injured by shelling in the town of Shushi, with a further four injured in a shelling attack in the town of Khojavend, known locally as Martuni, as documented by CPJ.

International powers continue to call for a ceasefire.

Journalists planning to cover the conflict on the ground from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding region should consider the following safety advice:

Pre-Assignment

  • As of October 8, the Nagorno-Karabakh region was accessible only via the land border crossings with Armenia, according to CPJ sources on the ground. Be aware that crossings may be closed with little or no notice.
  • Ensure that you apply for the relevant accreditation to report from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani authorities regard journalists who work in Nagorno-Karabakh without their permission to be working illegally, and consider those who travel through Armenia to get there as illegally entering their state borders, according to a press release from the Azeri Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Twitter. This frequently results in journalists being banned from entering Azerbaijan, and has resulted in prison sentences in the past. Note that press credentials can be revoked at any moment, as documented by CPJ in the case of Russian independent daily Novaya Gazeta correspondent Ilya Azar, who had his accreditation revoked by Armenia on October 8.
  • Appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) should be taken with you and worn when operating on the ground. Sources have informed CPJ that obtaining PPE on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh and also in Armenia is currently extremely challenging. It is advisable to take the following items as a minimum:

–A hard body vest (i.e. with ballistic grade hard armor/plates)

–A ballistic grade safety helmet

–Ballistic grade safety goggles

–Ear defenders

–Avoid taking/wearing PPE that makes you look too much like the military or security forces, taking into account the color and style of all items worn

–If possible, you should plan on bringing additional PPE for any local drivers and/or fixers that you work with, as they are unlikely to be able to procure their own

–If transiting/connecting through airports in the wider region, it is advisable to research if PPE may cause issues with customs/authorities

  • Electricity supplies have on occasion been disrupted in certain towns due to shelling and drone strikes. You should take a good quality flashlight and spare batteries with you, as well as a portable power bank to charge your equipment. Ensure that you charge your equipment at every opportunity.
  • Medical care is available and of a reasonable standard in the major cities of Nagorno-Karabakh. Depending on your location it can be difficult to reach medical assistance quickly due to the challenging road conditions. Bring a well-stocked emergency first aid kit with you, and it is advisable to have a medically qualified individual with you. Be aware that medevac options may be limited due to ongoing fighting.
  • Some scenes you witness may be traumatic and upsetting. Consider the risk of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), an issue that can affect even the most experienced and battle hardened war correspondents. For more information on understanding trauma, please refer to CPJ’s psychological safety note.
  • Good resources for information include the International Crisis Group, which has a detailed visual guide to the conflict that includes maps (which can be hard to obtain). In addition, Al-Monitor has a good breakdown of the regional players, as well as the weaponry involved. Having an understanding of the uniforms and vehicles used by either side can be important to your safety, noting that both sides commonly take and use each other’s vehicles.
  • Bring emergency provisions with you in case you are cut off or if there are any issues with food supplies.
  • Journalists covering the region should thoroughly review their digital security, noting that online harassment is very common. Only communicate via devices and platforms you know are secure and that will not compromise the safety of you and your team. Store any sensitive data in the cloud and/or on encrypted devices.
  • Ensure you have adequate travel and life insurance in place that will cover you for working in a conflict zone. For EU-based freelancers, Voyager High Risk Insurance is a popular option. The ACOS Alliance has additional information on insurance for freelance journalists and local media.

On The Ground

Logistics

  • Key bridges have been targeted, as witnessed on the Lachin corridor highway over the Hakari river, which may result in land crossings becoming inaccessible and/or their closure. With only a few roads in and out of the Nagorno-Karabakh region there is a possibility of getting cut off from Armenia. This should be factored into your contingency planning accordingly.
  • The main fighting is currently centered in three main areas: The mountainous north, and the relatively low lying east and south, as reported by the BBC. Be aware that the presence of aerial combat drones (UAVs) makes no area a truly safe zone at present, including major cities such as Stepanakert and Shushi, and the outskirts of which have been shelled. Additionally, there have been reports of strikes inside the recognized borders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, including on the outskirts Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
  • It is strongly advisable to work with a reliable and trusted fixer and/or driver from the Nagorno-Karabakh region at all times, noting that the local dialect can be difficult (even for Armenians).
  • Be aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to source an experienced driver who is willing to travel outside the city, as many local people have been called up to fight due to mobilization (including reservists).
  • Road conditions can be extremely challenging, with narrow and steep mountain passes in places. Driving can be very slow and at times dangerous, especially in poor weather. This can make entering and exiting an area quickly impossible and impact your ability to reach medical care. Never rely on apps like Google Maps to work out approximate driving times.
  • Due to the threat from air strikes and drones, it is strongly recommended to stay in accommodation that has access to a basement, underground bunker, or air raid shelter. Be ready to relocate to a safe shelter at short notice, and have the necessary equipment ready to go in a grab bag (such as warm clothes, portable water/food, phone charger, small mirror for contact lenses, etc.).
  • Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law. In Azerbaijan a 9 p.m. curfew is in place, with limited internet access reported on a number of days, according to Human Rights Watch. This should be factored into your contingency planning and movements, noting that it may limit your ability to report.
  • If possible, try and avoid public transport hubs in the wider region. A train station in the Azerbaijan city of Terter was hit, as well as a bus station, according to media reports and photos posted by journalists on Twitter.

Safety Considerations

Indiscriminate and heavy artillery, mortar, air and drone strikes are a significant danger when operating in the region. At least six journalists have already been seriously injured, as documented by CPJ.

  • According to CPJ sources on the ground, there are increased checkpoints on the routes in and out of the Nagorno Karabakh region. If you are held up at such checkpoints remain alert to the danger of being targeted by shelling and/or air strikes.
  • Though air raid sirens are generally reliable, there have been several notable attacks with no warning, according to CPJ sources on the ground. If you do hear a siren, seek hard cover immediately–most buildings usually have some sort of basement and you will see locals running toward them.
  • Before traveling to any location, check on the latest security situation with locals and/or other journalists who have been there. If possible, ask for updates at checkpoints along the way and identify safe locations. Be aware of an ‘echo chamber’ effect that individuals spreading unsubstantiated information can create.
  • Getting caught in shelling and crossfire is a real danger, as highlighted by Reuters, while drones are a hidden threat that can strike at any moment, as reported by Asia Times. PPE should therefore be worn and situational awareness observed at all times. Remain aware of your surroundings and constantly assess viable escape routes and hard cover options.
  • Multiple nongovernmental organizations have identified the use of Israeli-made M095 DPICM cluster munitions in residential areas of Stepanakert. These can be identified by the attached bright pink ribbon, as highlighted by the Halo Trust. These weapons are extremely dangerous and should be avoided completely.
  • Media workers should be aware of the dangers of reporting from the immediate aftermath of an explosion, shelling, airstrike, or drone attack, noting the dangers from a follow up strike, secondary explosions from flammable materials, and/or collapsing buildings. For safety reasons, always keep a safe distance from windows and/or glass-fronted buildings.
  • When reporting from a built up urban area that has recently been attacked, consider the necessity of wearing breathing protection, noting the health risks associated with breathing in asbestos, dust, and other harmful particulates if buildings have collapsed.
  • Find out if attacks are occurring in rear areas such as ambushes, special forces operations, or air attacks. Identify patterns such as dawn bombardments or dusk air assaults. Always be alert to the threat of snipers.
  • Be particularly careful when reporting near military targets or anything that could be mistaken for a military target.
  • In the past in conflict zones, live broadcasting and filming from rooftops or strategic positions have been targeted, particularly at night.
  • Plan your overnight stops in advance, and only stay in areas considered to be relatively safe that are well away from any frontline fighting. Always aim to get back to your accommodation well before dark.
  • Use discretion when filming, especially around sensitive sites and state infrastructure. Security forces will be on high alert and may be suspicious of individuals taking photos/filming and may arrest/detain you.
  • Ensure you always have a contingency plan for a hasty extraction, and make sure to communicate it clearly with your emergency contacts. The road in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh is long and may not always be safe, so be aware that opportunities to leave quickly may not always exist.

Transportation

  • Ensure that any vehicle you travel in is clearly marked with PRESS, MEDIA, or TV on the roof and/or hood of the car, and also in the front windscreen and rear window of the vehicle. Avoid traveling in vehicles used or similar to those used by the military. Be aware that some journalists have been shelled when in transit, as highlighted by CPJ, despite having PRESS marked on their vehicles.
  • If your vehicle is in danger of being targeted by a drone or air strike, it is advisable to leave the vehicle immediately and to seek hard cover from a safe distance.
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of traveling in a convoy, taking into account the risk of being targeted by airstrikes/shelling. Be aware that on very narrow mountain roads you may not be able to pass another vehicle safely if it is immobilized.
  • The entire Nagorno-Karabakh region is still heavily mined with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, as well as cluster munitions from previous conflicts. Mapping of minefields is inconsistent and even locals can be unaware of which areas are not safe, as highlighted by Al-Jazeera. Ensure you stick to well-trodden paths and roads at all times, and refer to the HALO Trust for up-to-date information.
  • Any vehicle used outside Stepanakert should have good ground clearance, be in good mechanical order, and be capable of handling challenging road conditions. Ensure that the vehicle is carrying spare fuel and fluids and an emergency tool kit, as well as a decent spare tire and the means to change it.

Communication

  • CPJ sources on the ground have reported that there is currently no cellular data available in the entire region, although regular phone calls and SMS are currently working. Wireless internet is reportedly the only option available as of October 8.
  • International roaming plans are unlikely to include Nagorno-Karabakh, so ensure you purchase a local SIM card on arrival. K-Telecom is one such local provider. Note that Armenian cell companies generally do not have service in the region outside of a few areas close to the border.
  • Charge electrical devices at every opportunity, and if feasible take a portable power bank with you.
  • Ensure you have a check-in procedure with your base, particularly when operating close to any front line fighting.

COVID-19

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are experiencing ongoing COVID-19 transmission, though recent reliable reports on the number of cases in Nagorno-Karabakh were not available. Outside of the major cities health infrastructure is poorly equipped, according to the International Crisis Group, and cases could rise as more people enter the region, especially if they are coming from countries with higher rates of COVID-19.

  • A COVID-19 test is compulsory on arrival if you enter at Yerevan airport. Results are being processed in as little as a couple of hours, according to CPJ sources on the ground who have entered in recent days, but note that it could still take up to 24 hours. This needs to be factored into your itinerary.
  • Relevant medical PPE should be taken with you, such as a N95 or FFP2 / FFP3 face mask and a supply of hand sanitizer (minimum alcohol content of 60%).
  • Ensure you regularly and thoroughly wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and routinely clean all equipment.
  • Those who fall into the COVID-19 vulnerable category and/or who reside with vulnerable individuals should consider the risks associated with such an assignment.

This Article was originally published on Covering the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

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