Armenian journalists in VIP car of Baku-Tbilisi train on way to Ganja. Courtesy photo.

Armenian and Azerbaijani media representatives who took part in the government-organized media exchange have began to share the details of their travels and impressions.

From November 17-21, David Alaverdyan of Mediamax News Agency, Edgar Elbakyan of Artsakh TV and Artem Yerkanyan of Shant TV visited Baku, Guba and Ganja, while Elchin Veliyev of Trend News Agency, Elshan Rustamov of and Orkhan Yolchuyev of Vestnik Kavkaza went to Yerevan, Stepanakert and Shushi.

The trips included meetings with local journalists and experts, as well as visits to chess federations, youth clubs, production facilities, and respectively the Yerevan mosque and the former Armenian church building in Baku that now serves as book depository.

Although the visits were agreed and organized by the governments in coordination with Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the journalists were not able to interview senior officials or report from on location. At the end, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministries were also unable to agree to a joint statement on the media exchange.

Throughout their trip, Armenian journalists were guarded by a dozen personnel from the Special State Security Service, whose primary function is to guard the Azerbaijani president, his family and the country’s oil and gas infrastructure.

Still, participants found the trip worthwhile. As Yerkanyan told Shant News he saw the trip – together with de-escalation of shooting on the Line of Contact – as further indication of Azerbaijani government’s readiness to take a more constructive line towards the conflict.

Aleksandr Iskandaryan, who was among Armenian experts who met with visiting Azerbaijani journalists, also noted the constructive nature of the discussion. He defended the fact that the visits were not public since “this was only the start of the process” that reflected the will of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

Writing in the Caucasus Knot web site, Hrant Mikaelyan argued that without contacts no peace process was possible. “People might say that this visit will not change anything, and they are correct,” Mikaelyan wrote. “But twenty-five thousand such visits could” create a climate for agreement.

There was more critical reaction in Azerbaijan. Journalist Shahin Rzayev told CivilNet that journalists should not work under government censorship and said that he was skeptical of such contacts in general.

Two of the three Azerbaijani visitors have yet to publicly write about the trip, with just one sharing several photos. This likely reflected the fact that the program was more controversial in Azerbaijan.

But the exchange did spur at least one curious report. An Azerbaijani news site appeared impressed with Artsakh TV’s Elbakyan’s level of sophistication when it comes to Azerbaijani music.

Prior to this trip, Armenian journalists had not visited Azerbaijan for over a decade. In July 2009, Aram Abrahamyan (Aravot and Shant News), Armen Khanbabyan (Novoye Vremya) and Ara Tadevosyan (Mediamax) went to Baku as part of a larger delegation of cultural figures.

Earlier, in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, media exchanges took place regularly until Azerbaijani government moved to curtail them.

According to the policy in place since early 1990s, individuals with Armenian names, independent of their citizenship, are prohibited from entering Azerbaijan unless their trip is specifically approved by Azerbaijani president’s office. Most such visits in recent years took place during international events hosted by Azerbaijan. Thus, parliament members Armen Ashotyan and Mane Tandilyan attended a European Parliament-organized conference two years ago.