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French photojournalist
of Azeri origin,
Reza Deghati
    It was February 1992, the day after the massacre of Azerbaijanis in Khojali. An old woman was looking for his son and husband among the hundreds of bodies brought into the main mosque in the neighboring town of Agdam. Suddenly, she raised her hands,screaming: “Oh Allah, why did you allow this to happen?” Armenians had hollowed out the eyes of both her son and husband with bayonets. The screaming of the woman drew the attention of Reza Deghati, a French photojournalist who was working for Newsweek and National Geographic at the time.


Deghati was in Azerbaijan between 1990 and 1992 as part of a mission called “Peace doctors and pharmacists without borders and the International Red Cross”. The mission had been organized by Bernard Kushner, secretary for the then French President Francois Mitterrand for humanitarian issues. He had filmed the massacre of peaceful protesters by Soviet troops in Baku in January 1990. In 1992, Reza visited Agdam to report on the Karabakh war.

Eighteen years on, the picture of the Khojali woman taken by Reza Deghati caused a diplomatic row in Paris that also involved the Armenian ambassador to France, Vigen Chitechiyan. The dust-up started after Reza exhibited the picture at a photo exhibition organized by the Paris Transportation Department at the Luxembourg station of the city metro in March 2010. The caption of the picture read: “Agdam, Azerbaijan, 1992. She found her son and husband with their eyes hallowed out… Very few of the Khojali residents survived the mass murder carried out by Armenian armed forces.” The powerful Armenian diaspora in Paris was concerned about this picture. They demanded that Reza remove the picture and the caption, threatening him with “tough action”.

The Armenian ambassador in Paris, Vigen Chitechiyan, also intervened in the row. On 3 July 2010, he unofficially invited Reza for a meeting, during which Chitechiyan said that the picture and the caption could cause tension in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and also within the Armenian diaspora. He tried to convince Reza that the massacre in Khojali could have been committed by the Azerbaijani military - in order to portray Azerbaijanis as victims - or by the Afghans or Turks fighting on the Azerbaijani side as well. Chitechiyan asked Reza to remove the words “Armenian armed forces” from the caption. But the photojournalist provided incontrovertible evidence that the massacre had been committed by Armenian armed forces. Reza said that, as an independent journalist he would not give in to outside pressure. He added that he rejected any “order” from political or non-governmental organizations that were trying to hamper his mission as an independent photojournalist.

Having realized that he would not get anywhere by diplomatic means, the Armenian ambassador started to threaten him openly. “From today on, I cannot guarantee that the Armenian diaspora will not hold protests against you,” he said. The meeting was followed by “protests”. First, the picture was torn up. Armenian extremists wrote this below the picture: “Attention! This is an anti-Armenian propaganda by Reza, who is an Iranian Azerbaijani.”

Indeed, Reza is an Azerbaijani. He was born in Tabriz in 1952. But he has always tried to refrain from bias while reporting. In 2005, he was awarded the order of the National Honor of France for his unbiased coverage of the fight for independence and freedom of speech in over 100 countries over the past 30 years. A picture by him on the capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 by supporters of the Islamic Revolution ran on the front page of Newsweek. He later worked for Time, Life, Figaro, Le Monde, Stern, Der Spiegel, Observer and other leading publications of the world. Reza currently works for National Geographic magazine.

Reza’s first works on Azerbaijan were reflective of his desire to reveal the truth about our country. He visited Baku on 24 January 1990 to document the crime that had been committed by Soviet troops. He was one of the first Western journalists to report the truth about the massacre that had taken place in Baku.

Because of his courage, he was allowed to visit Azerbaijan again as part of the mission “Peace doctors and pharmacists without borders and the International Red Cross”. The main goal of this mission, which was based in Agdam until 1992, was to negotiate with the commanders of Armenian forces that were occupying Khojali and the surrounding villages to return the bodies of Azerbaijanis that were killed in the fighting. It also provided assistance to those who had fled their homes and received injures.

Reza Deghati has always exposed the Armenian atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh via his exhibitions. One of those exhibitions was held at the Luxembourg Park outside the French Senate in 2003. The exhibition, which was supported by the Senate, also featured pictures about Karabakh. Angered by this, Armenian lobby groups in France appealed to the Senate to close down the exhibition. But the Senate said it trusted Reza’s objectivity.

After that, Armenians attacked the Paris Transportation Department, which had hosted an exhibition by Reza at the Luxembourg station of the city metro. Lawyer Raffi Peshdimajyan, who defends the interests of the Association of Armenians of Paris, “Siamanto Friends” and other Armenians organizations, wrote a letter to the Transportation Department, demanding that the picture of the Khojali woman and the caption be removed. The letter read: “The facts in the text speak about unbelievable atrocity, and do not reflect the reality. The notes there are racist and full of hatred for humanity. They damage the integrity of the Armenian people.”

The lawyer demanded that the caption be removed within 48 hours, threatening to sue the department if it refused to do so. In order to “sooth the ire”, the head of the Transportation Department proposed that Reza either replace the picture and the caption or keep the torn up picture as it was. Thus, the Transportation Department of the French capital backed down under the Armenian pressure. Now Reza has been left alone in the fight against the Armenian diaspora in France, which is acting as one united body.

The countries of the European Union are viewed as the cradle of democracy. Regrettably, however, it is very difficult to tell the truth through photos and documents in those countries too.


                 

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