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28 July 2023

Shusha Global Media Forum

Is the world heading for a ‘post-truth’ world as AI starts to affect journalism? This was just one of several important questions debated by a high-powered conference of international media figures over three days in Azerbaijan’s cultural capital, Shusha. Mark Elliott attended for the Caspian Post.

Shusha Global Media Forum

Images by Mark Elliott

Last week I was honoured, if a little surprised, to have been invited to Azerbaijan to join the prestigious Shusha Global Media Forum. I have been writing about Azerbaijan for almost 30 years but on arrival, many of the 250 international delegates knew little, if anything, about the country, and it was intriguing to watch their first impressions—especially as the setting was amid the post-conflict ruins of Shusha, Karabakh. For those unfamiliar with the recent history of the Caucasus, it came as an unexpected shock to discover that the place described in the Forum’s pre-departure information as a ‘city’ is as yet lacking in any real civilian population (other than teams of builders and mine-clearance operatives). More shocking still was the sheer plethora of ruined buildings that still predominate in Shusha, along with the rubble of ghost villages that are visible along the twisting road that leads there from the sparkling new airport at Fuzuli—also a ghost town but with apartment blocks well on their way to construction.

However, the meetings themselves were hosted in the lavish, brand new Şuşa Hotel, where proceedings were kicked off by a ‘surprise’ guest, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. As I have written about elsewhere, Mr. Aliyev made just a very short opening speech before sitting down to take over 2½ hours of open questions on an impressively wide-ranging raft of issues.

Thereafter the main Forum theme was “New Media in the Era of the 4th Industrial Revolution,” aimed at “exploring the new and dynamic media environment” through a series of panel discussions plus q&a sessions with press and communications professionals from almost 50 different countries. Their backgrounds were extraordinarily varied—news anchors from Turkey and Trinidad, conflict resolution specialists from the UK, TikTokers from Georgia, documentary makers from the U.S., and many, many more. I even ended up sharing a breakfast table with the charming head of communications for the African Union.

What is the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” 

The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” was popularised in a book by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum. Taking the first industrial revolution as the mechanization of processes through water and steam power, and the second as mass production using electricity and assembly lines, the third industrial revolution is then the adoption of computers to streamline processes. By this hierarchy, the fourth is seen as including genetic editing, neuro-technological brain enhancements, and the new steps under which machines begin to use data and automate processes. Or, according to one writer, the “combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems.” Eventually, artificial intelligence (AI) might escape human intervention altogether. Indeed some business leaders and tech insiders warn that the date is fast approaching.

So why in Shusha?

Undoubtedly the subject of technological innovation causing a potential media tsunami is one of international importance. Nonetheless, it took Presidential advisor Hikmet Hajiyev’s speech for most of us to understand the logic by which this theme linked the Forum to Shusha. In concise, beautifully polished English, Mr. Hajiyev pointed out that for most of the world, the fall of Shusha to Armenia in 1992—along with the Khojali Massacre the same year—barely surfaced on the news agenda. Indeed, had there been the internet, at least there’d have been a better chance of the stories gaining international attention rather than relying on irregular news wires. Another major factor at the time had been the uneven nature of the news coverage, which, if discussing the Caucasus at all, often followed an unconscious pro-Armenian bias. For example, even two weeks after Khojali, Time Magazine still subtitled its article “blood feud between Armenians and Azerbaijanis” such that for uninformed readers, it was unclear who had massacred who.

With such a background, argued Hajiyev, it is very relevant that the future of new technologies and changing media environments should be discussed in the very kind of place which might have greatly benefitted had such tools been available 30 years ago.

The discussions

The first panel on the future of media was pessimistic. According to Professor Paolo von Schirach, we’ll soon be saying that “news is dead… or at least on a respirator.” Azer Khalilov saw news continuing to have a role in an entertainment milieu but thought that by 2030 presenters would likely be digitally cloned. Former ABC News producer Dana Wolfe suggested that by then, the idea of using phones or computers would likely be superseded with implant technology. She warned that everyone present needed to be ready to pivot radically in a very short time frame and bewailed the major cuts in overseas bureaux by North American news corporations. “Tell your children to learn languages and cultures, not to study journalism” she suggested. For peacemaker Oliver McTernan, AI’s dangers are more through potential use in weaponry than in their effects on media. More important for the press was the need to be objective. Objective but not neutral. Attempts to be even-handed can ironically exaggerate the narrative of a fringe view in the name of ‘balance.’ And asymmetric media narratives, he suggested, can cause intractability in a conflict as one side’s view gets almost subliminally overlooked—such has been the case for Azerbaijan (drowned out by Armenian views) and the Palestinians (almost invisible behind Israel).

The second session was supposed to look at media management business models, but mostly reworked the ideas of the earlier session from a more optimistic angle. Mikail Gusman, deputy director of Russian state-owned news agency Tass, disagreed with previous pessimism and believed that computers could never be as creative as humans[1]. Klaus Jurgens pointed out that in media, it’s truthfulness that ultimately gives the most added value to a broadcaster. Bora Bayrakter re-iterated the need to challenge mainstream narrative assumptions and, thus, western hegemonic media viewpoints, with youth ever easier to manipulate. However, while seeing some positives in AI, he also worried that Chat GPT and similar software would very soon remove the basic level work that is important for junior journalists in learning the trade. 

Several speakers had already surprised the audience by revealing that they had mixed sections of presentations that they had written themselves with paragraphs written by Chat GPT—and nobody seemed to have noticed. 

Slightly shocked, we were refreshed with a fascinating tour of Shusha’s landmark highlights and a truly extraordinary gala dinner. This was paired with a mime show magically illustrating the changing aspects of journalism and a remarkable roster of musical performances, including opera, mugham, Eurovision pop, and a turn by jazz piano legend Isfar Sarabski.

Education for Readers, Safety for Journalists

The next day the first session looked at media consumption trends and literacy with both Tina Berdzenishvili and Matthias Lüfkens underlining the importance of education in learning to deal with new media. Tina reminded us that media consumers always have the choice of looking away, while Matthias pointed out that news has always been bite-sized, at least in its headline teasers. Defence analyst Oubai Shahbandar warned of the possibilities of chain reactions caused by deep-fake media technologies leading to or exacerbating real-life conflict. Clive Marshall suggested that there will be a growing range of tools to identify the reliability of photo sources and that news outlets will need to teach their audiences how to consume news in the new era. The session’s moderator, Shafag Mehraliyeva, pointed out the dangers of ‘knowledge resistance’ (how people tend to favour the first version of a story they hear even if that’s later proven incorrect) and floated the idea of a Non-Aligned Media Unit. That would be timely as Azerbaijan, for now, remains head of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In a final session looking at the safety of journalists, Anthony Bellanger, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), questioned why Azerbaijan had not yet expressed support for a convention that the union plans to send to the UN to end impunity of attacks on reporters. Korean Professor Gi Woong Jung suggested that a way to show such support, and indeed go further, would be for next year’s Media Forum to formulate a Shusha Declaration to protect journalists following up and improving upon the IFJ version. 

The panel discussion also considered the dimension of psychological attacks that some media practitioners suffer in the pursuit of their duties and that seem to be growing rapidly in the new media era of automated bots. Cyberbullying and intimidation are not just a school playground phenomenon. Indeed, that very morning, several attendees had been receiving vicious social media harassment, with TRT TV presenter Maria Ramos receiving some particularly sordid slurs from Armenians, apparently angry that she was present in Shusha at all. 

Why, asked online questioners (on #GMF2023 and #Shushaglobalmediuforum) and at least one journalist from the floor, was it not possible for this large group of media folks to drive just 15 minutes down the road to Khankendi/Stepanakert? If we went there, we could see first-hand what was happening in the other part of Karabakh, where Armenians are majority residents. However, one of the Azerbaijani panellists, Vugar Seyidov, an experienced journalist from AzerTac, patiently addressed the issue explaining to those unfamiliar with the situation, that although both are within Azerbaijan, there is a triple cordon of security forces (only one of these Azerbaijani) currently preventing access between the two cities. Despite this, he expressed the hope that before long, the situation will be resolved such that future editions of the Forum would indeed be able to visit Khankendi. Better still, he hoped that soon Armenian journalists will feel comfortable enough to join international media events like this one. And that Azerbaijani journalists will be welcome in Yerevan.



[1] One wonders whether he is aware of the kind of exponential leaps in computer creativity already on the cards, as discussed by AI leaders like Emad Moustaque.