YPC Weekly Newsletter

2004


WHAT SHOULD MEDIA OF ARMENIA AND SOUTH CAUCASUS DO?

In the previous issue (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, October 22-28, 2004) we informed about the conference held on October 25-26 in Tbilisi “21st Century Challenges for the Media of South Caucasus: Dealing with Libel and Freedom of Information”, which was organized by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OSCE Mission to Georgia.

Below the report of the President of Yerevan Press Club Boris Navasardian “Interrelations of Politics, Society and Media in Armenia” is presented, as made on the first day of the conference, followed by the Declaration on Libel and Freedom of Information, adopted by the results of the conference on October 26 by its participants.

INTERRELATIONS OF POLITICS, SOCIETY AND MEDIA IN ARMENIA

The ordinary people in Armenia regard the press and journalists just like they do in any normal country – namely, as the well-behaved children feel about the cod-liver oil: they are not very fond of it, but they do realize that it is a useful thing and should be consumed with moderate dosage. However, there are categories of population – let them conventionally be called “the bad guys” – who, while not liking this “cod-liver oil”, are trying to change its nature according to their own tastes and to get instead Coke, vodka or some other liquid. Unfortunately, it is these categories that keep all the main resources of the country, also those that determine the media situation.

Once the Armenian press of the early 1990s somewhat departed from the selectionist experiments it had suffered for seventy years of the Soviet era, the politicians of the new generation undertook the breeding of the type of mass media convenient for themselves, – rather these were the political parties of the independent republic, possessing the resources for decision-making. It is they that made up the decision-making elite during the first years of independence. By mid-90s the country had practically no news media; they were replaced by propaganda media. Each newspaper attempted to prove that the party or the political group that was behind it was the only one protecting the national interests, and all its opponents were leading the people to disaster. The effort of protecting the narrow party and group interests was led by the state-owned propaganda media. And when the power structures did not manage to gain an overwhelming advantage on the purely ideological front, they moved the dispute into a sphere, where their arguments proved to be irreversible: bans and demolitions of opposition press, creation of economic, bureaucratic and legal obstacles for the latter not to be able to overcome. The utmost example in this regard is the simultaneous closure of over a dozen opposition media in early 1995.

This abuse of freedom of expression could not leave the attitude of the audience to the press unchanged. If in 1991-1992 queues that lasted for hours stood in front of the newspaper stalls, and the print runs of the newly appearing publications reached 50-70 thousand, during the subsequent years the readers’ demand for print periodicals started to go down. For some time the ordinary people, trying to get the “cod-liver oil” they needed, were deceived by taking some kinds of Coke or other liquids instead. Then, having realized they were deceived, they arrived at their aims by mixing everything offered: having gone through the coverage of the same event or the problem in publications of different stances, one could try and get an objective picture. However it was getting increasingly difficult to filter out the real information out of the intensified flow of propaganda “Coke” and called for titanic intellectual effort, moreover, was associated with expenses too high for an ordinary Armenian wallet.

Thus the newspapers became increasingly adequate to the tastes of “the bad guys” and were becoming elite reading, accessible only to professionals that synthesize “cod-liver oil” out of any “liquid”. The ordinary reader is getting all the farther from the press, trying to replenish the information vitamin reserve out of other sources. By the findings of a sociological survey, conducted in the end of the last millennium, “conversations with acquaintances” were rated as third information source in Armenia. A popular satirist of Soviet times Semion Nariniani would have called this source “AAS (‘An Auntie Said’) news agency”. The reasons for the popularity of AAS in the Communist past are well-known to us, but its persistent survival during the epoch of freedom of expression and plurality says nothing good about our society.

Certainly, the journalists themselves have tried to comply with their professional mission and still are: to provide up-to-date and objective information on all the most important events to the audience. But they succeed in these attempts only occasionally, and mostly, contrary to what their masters expect them to do. A very typical example is the situation after the terrorist attack on the Armenian Parliament five years ago, when the country was almost completely beheaded. While the masters of the Armenian press (and not only) were at a loss and were trying to get a sense of direction in the drastically changed political environment, the media behaved as their journalistic conscience told them, and the public got everything that it should have got from news media during this short period of one or two days. But as soon as the new political priorities were defined, the journalists and the media – both the print and electronic ones – were again divided into confronting camps, and the natural media-product was again replaced by a surrogate.

The very common phenomenon in the post-Soviet Armenia is the accusations of the education system, allegedly failing to meet the needs of media in promising young journalists. Some colleagues are trying to explain all the problems of the Armenian journalism by this very circumstance. The issue, in reality, is not that, although the journalistic education system certainly does call for much improvement. The professional skills of journalists corresponds to the demand that is formed by the Armenian press of today. The nature of the work in it, unfortunately, is not always stimulating the aspiration towards heights of professionalism, towards standards defined by the leading media of the world.

The problems, primarily, are centered around the sources of the media existence, the traditional question of who pays the piper. The rough analysis of the market yields the following picture: the first place in terms of material resources of media, at a huge distance from other sources, belongs to various sponsorship, investments of financial and business groups (the lion share making the subsidies from several oligarchic groups); the second place is taken by advertising revenues, that are almost fully absorbed by the television, other media types get only the leftovers from the “king’s dinner”; the third place is taken by direct subsidies from state budget, and here the unrivaled consumer is the Public TV and Radio Company of Armenia, whose line in the budget is more significant than that of the National Academy of Science; the fourth place is taken by funding that comes directly or indirectly from parties and political blocs; the fifth is the revenues generated by marketing the media production; the sixth is the assistance of international organizations and foundations. If one tries to differentiate the sources as to which of them demand quality, “good” journalism (returning to the terminology used in the beginning of the presentation, “the cod-liver oil”), and which call for “bad” journalism (all other liquids), the resources of “the bad guys”, that is, the ordered of “bad” journalism, will be obviously more powerful: these are the first, the third and the fourth lines in the rating of main sources.

It goes without saying that the differentiation proposed is very conventional: the Public Television and Radio, by the funding from state budget occasionally do air some quality programs, and on the other hand, the payment for advertising services is often a disguised form of political sponsorship. But the general situation is not changed because of that: the media revenue, generated due to an order of certain political, oligarchic circles, is significantly higher than the revenue, generated by meeting the broad consumers’ demand for up-to-date and impartial information. What we have as a result is the broad gap between the supply, imposed by the main ordered, and the mass demand. By the findings of repeated researches, the first lines among the subjects covered by the press were taken by various issues of inner politics. Yet, the public was primarily interested in international affairs and social issues that took the 6th and 11th places, respectively, among other subjects that received media attention. And however eager the media professionals are, they do not often get the chance to correspond to the best standards of journalism and the expectations of the society.

The attentive reader noticed that, as compared to the period described by me at the beginning of this presentation, today the stance of Armenian media is determined not by the political parties but by the oligarchic circles. This, to a certain extent, changes the nature of journalism, and one can argue whether it is for better or for worse. In mid-1990s we all felt bad about the polarization of print media (propaganda media) by their party preferences. But in that case the attitude, the approaches of the press to certain matters were, in general understandable and clear at least to a part of the audience. While the purposes, the interests of oligarchic clans, the clashes of which are reflected in media and increasingly determine the content of the publication, are not recorded in any statutes, programs, manifests, and the public is much less aware of them than of party platforms. Thus, getting tired of the exchange with mysterious messages through media between the various groups of oligarchic super-elite, the audience has to resort to entertaining reading and viewing and confines itself to TV news, including Russian TV news, to satiate its information hunger. And this is despite the fact that in the person of Armenian public such media would have had a grateful reader. The turbulent developments of the recent years, the existence of numerous problems both within the country and on the regional level, the traditionally high literacy rate condition the active interest of people to the processes underway. However, the information hunger is not being satiated, because of which the print media suffer too, losing circulation, and so does the country in general, not using the civil potential of the nation. A certain vicious circle is thus created: the press needs a broad readership to gain financial independence from political sponsors, and the mass consumer is only ready to pay the press that is up to his interests, and not to the interests of a narrow group of the rich. Apparently, the media should break through this circle, but up to now the rare attempts to refuse the guaranteed feeding-rack and to go into the open sea of civilized information market were unsuccessful.

While the media market has this specifics, there are, unfortunately, representatives of our profession that have relaxed and are trying to get as much pleasure as possible. Those who are satisfied with the remuneration received, manage to look quite respectable. Those, who think themselves to be at a disadvantage and deserving a greater piece of oligarchic pie, resort to various forms of journalistic blackmail, being insistent in their work with the paying object until he is mature enough to understand that one must share what he has… Yet, this task is a very delicate and risky one. Not all the potential sponsors respect the criminal code, and, not having the necessary skills, arguments, patience, the media blackmailer, instead of the piece expected runs the risk of getting a brain concussion and advice to never practice journalism (if what has been described has a right to be called journalism).

There is also an optimistic view at the situation. It proceeds from a thesis that there is no complete independence of media, and one should only speak about the independence of media from the state. If the share of the state in media ownership and expenses reduces, and that is the trend now present in Armenia, this already signifies some progress. In reality, the existence of 60 private broadcasters is impressive, but this apparently must refer not only to the legal status but also to who stands behind them and how it is reflected in the content of the programs. And the important thing is the television, since it, as noted above, dominates the news dissemination, and therefore, plays an enormous role in the formation of public opinion. The statement “who controls the TV air, owns the power” is truly justified in case of Armenia. The owners of the majority of private national and metropolitan TV channels, at least among those that have political influence, are major businessmen, who are in some way related to power. Add to this the most powerful, in terms of its coverage, Armenian medium, the Public TV and Radio Company, headed by a Council, appointed personally and solely by the President of the country. Also, take into account the fact that among the advertisers and the advertising agencies the prevailing position is again taken by entrepreneurs who are sympathetic to the authorities. And it will be clear to you, that the status of “private” and “public” do not at all coincide with the concepts of “independent” and “politically neutral”.

The authorities, naturally, do not rely on the abstract sympathy of the broadcasters, it needs institutionalized guarantees. The main control function is performed by the National Commission on Television and Radio, the members of which, similarly to the members of the Council of Public TV and Radio Company, are appointed personally and solely by the President of the country. This body that distributes the frequencies by competition and is to control the compliance of the private broadcasters with their license terms and the RA legislation. It is to account for the loss of 8 broadcast licensing competitions by one of the oldest and most popular Armenian channels, “A1+”, which has been out of air for two years and a half already simply because its work could not be controlled from above. The practical impossibility to follow all the provisions of the legislation for the broadcasting companies allows the Commission to punish or forgive them at its own discretion. Owing to the well-constructed system, the authorities manage not only to influence the content of the TV programs but also the change of ownership of the companies. That is, without the “highest” approval, no TV companies can be bought or sold.

Certainly, this all occurs with no verbalization and most often looks quite decent, as the civilized legal norms require. But not everyone believes it. In case of “A1+”, for some reason, the various local and international organizations are addressing the President of the country, and he has to explain that this very National Commission on Television and Radio that he has formed is an independent structure and he, however fond he is of the TV channel that has lost air, cannot influence the decisions of NCTR. There was even more puzzlement in the response of the presidential administration to the recent address of the President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Thomas Dine with a request to assist the TV program cycle, produced by the radio company by a preliminary agreement with a private TV company, yet suspended, to get back on air. The Spokesman of the RA President was very explicit in telling Mr. Dine that “the RA Law “On Mass Communication”, adopted in 2003, excludes the possibility of any intervention of the government into the professional activities of the press…”

While I do have my own vision of the recent incident, I will not be commenting on it. I will only indulge myself to say a few words about the Radio Liberty, or, rather, its Armenian Service. Four years ago here, in Georgia, in Gudauri, a major conference, organized by Radio Liberty was held. I was invited along with my colleagues from Azerbaijan and Georgia to tell the conference participants from different countries what the media of our region are. The request to present first my organization was answered by me to the effect that the mission of Yerevan Press Club is to create conditions when there would be no need in Radio Liberty. In other words, for our own media to get to a level, when the foreign radio voices are unable to compete. But I also calmed down my colleagues, noting that it looks like we will not arrive at this goal soon. At least, even now, the programs of the Radio Liberty Armenian Service are notable for their professionalism, objectivity and are permanently popular with the listeners. (Actually, the radio station is also very convincing in denying the opinion that the problems of Armenian media stem from the lack of good journalists. Almost all our young colleagues who come to Radio Liberty progress very soon and prove that in a creative climate, when their work is valued and they are only required to perform their professional duty well, they are quite capable of working on the level of their western peers.) Unlike the audience, the authorities of Armenia are not very fond of this radio station. In 1995-1996, during the rule of the previous RA President, the re-broadcasting of Radio Liberty Armenian Service on the state radio was temporarily prohibited. Further, all attempts of Radio Liberty to initiate TV projects on various channels failed. This is another illustration of how the authorities regard the media out of their control, particularly, when the latter ones are able to exercise obvious influence on the public opinion.

In my presentation I deliberately stressed the problems that the media development in the country stumbles across. The representatives of Armenia press, similarly, I think, to their colleagues in Georgia and Azerbaijan, cannot as yet report accomplishments with regard to freedom of expression. This is done by the leaders of our countries, and they hardly need our help. Moreover, the accomplishments are still fragile and the problems are fundamental. Since Armenia has found itself a bit ahead of its neighbors in South Caucasus in the reformation of media legislation in compliance with commitments to the Council of Europe (I mean not the qualitative aspect, in terms of actual freedom of expression we are probably behind Georgia, but the quantitative aspect of the reforms), I do recommend my colleagues to study not only the experience of advanced European countries, but also ours, so as to avoid at least some of the “traps” that can transform the most liberal procedures into mechanisms of restricting the freedom of expression. This recommendation refers primarily to the European experts that help our countries to improve the laws: they find it even harder, than we, in our countries, to determine these “traps” in the drafts submitted for expert evaluation. And the acquaintance with the practical effect of certain legal provisions on the specific post-Soviet South Caucasus soil is particularly important for them.

My speech would have been incomplete without proposing solutions to the problems raised. The situation analysis presented above shows that the main threat for the freedom of expression in Armenia today is the state and oligarchic monopoly of media, based not so much on power, but on pseudo-market and pseudo-legal mechanisms, that I tried to describe. And it is the formation of certain alternatives to this monopoly that the strategy of independent media development should build on.

Firstly, these are measures on relieving the economical burden that the press shoulders. Armenian media are the only sphere that received nothing from the privatization of enterprises related to information and publication industries. Today the only unsold property is the state premises that the editorial offices rent. And the media should at least receive these facilities as property on advantageous terms. (The allusions to the need to replenish the budget through privatization are unsuitable here: if the enterprises with a real value of millions of dollars have been privatized for thousands of dollars, the budget can survive the not very big losses of privileges to the press.) The real estate ownership is an important basis for independent business. Moreover, annually, the RA state budget calls for a certain amount to support the independent media; however, it is distributed by some unclear principles. Meanwhile, the media community has long ago proposed to use these sums for the proportionate compensation of a part of the taxes paid by the press. This would stimulate the transparency of the financial management of media, the refusal of at least some of them to have “black” deals.

Secondly, it is the encouragement of quality, objective journalism, the kind that the Radio Liberty programs are. It will find it difficult to change the information climate in the country alone, but if there are more positive examples, the situation will no longer look as hopeless. Thus, the $ 7.5 mln, allocated by the USAID for the support of independent media during the coming 4-5 years, could have made a significant contribution to the implementation of this idea. This is quite a big amount of money for Armenian media market, and it could serve an effective counterbalance to the sources spent on “bad” journalism. However, the conditions of implementing this project as they have been defined by the USAID will hardly allow changing the media landscape in Armenia. Unfortunately, the examples of resource waste with good intentions, but with no adequate understanding of the needs of a specific county, are numerous. At the same time it may mean that there is an idle resource that can be made more active.

Thirdly, it is the greater consistency of international structures that have an obvious influence on the processes in our countries. I mean, primarily, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. In 2000, a few months before joining the CE, the Armenian Parliament passed the Law “On Television and Radio” that is most bluntly contradicting several fundamental standards stipulated by the recommendations of the CE Committee of Ministers. Yet, this did not cause a very negative response of Strasbourg. And during the subsequent four years our Parliament, despite the numerous documents, demanding to improve the Law, not only failed to do so, but even made a number of amendments enabling the authorities to strengthen the control of the authorities over the broadcasting. However, judging from the last PACE Resolution on Armenia’s honoring of its commitments, this sabotage is of little concern to Strasbourg. Such tolerance is hardly contributing to the implementation of true reforms.

Fourthly, it is the introduction of the principles of self-regulation in the activities of Armenian media. The leading Armenian journalists are increasingly aware that they are unable to confront the dictate of oligarchic ethics alone, that they need self-protection from the laws and judicial practice that restrict the freedom of expression. To save their own industry from complete discrimination in the eyes of the society they are ready to propose their corporate ethics, their system of solving informational conflicts as an alternative. Overcoming the political dissociation of journalists is not a simple task, but the instinct of self-preservation of the profession, should there be competent intervention and stimulating on behalf of non-governmental organizations and international institutions, should work.

As it can be seen from this incomplete list of measures to improve the situation of Armenian media, joint effort is necessary to consolidate state structures, the media community and international organizations. This work could be coordinated by a group, similar to the one created on the initiative of OSCE Office in Yerevan. Let us hope that it will not lose the momentum, gained in 2003.

Boris NAVASARDIAN, YPC President
Tbilisi, October 25, 2004

THE TBILISI DECLARATION ON LIBEL AND FREEDOM OF INFORMATION

On Defamation:

– Executive and legislative authorities at all levels should systematically review all legal norms including laws, regulations, decrees and other legal instruments, that impose criminal and civil sanctions for defamation. This review should be in consultation with the judiciary, media and civil society organizations. The changes should include:

– In Armenia and Azerbaijan, criminal defamation laws should be eliminated and replaced with appropriate and narrowly defined civil defamation laws. As a first step, at least prison sentences should be abolished including suspended ones. If decriminalization is not possible in the short term, all current cases should be stopped and a moratorium on further cases should be imposed. All persons imprisoned for these offences should be released and rehabilitated.

– Public bodies should not be eligible to use defamation laws. Under the law, public officials and elected representatives should be prohibited from using defamation laws to suppress legitimate criticism of their activities or limit political debate.

– Specific criminal and civil laws for insulting heads of state should be abolished.

– Civil defamation laws should be revised based on established international standards and best practices. The burden of proving falsehood should always be placed on the person who is complaining. Even in cases of factual inaccuracies, there should be a defence of ‘reasonable publication’ available.

– In parallel to decriminalisation, civil damages should be limited to what is clearly necessary only to repair the harm done by the defamatory statement and take into account the effect of the award on the ability of the defendant to continue to exercise their profession. Laws should define an upper limit for damages.

– Media should develop, promote and observe professional and ethical standards. Governments should not obstruct efforts by media to establish professional bodies and create self-regulatory mechanisms.

– Specialised non-governmental organisations should conduct ongoing monitoring and regularly report on the use of these laws. They should provide training to media on their legal rights and obligations.

On Freedom of Information:

Executive and legislative authorities at all levels should systematically review all legal norms including laws, regulations, decrees and other legal instruments, that affect access to information held by public bodies. This review should be in consultation with the judiciary, media and civil society organisations. The changes should include:

Regarding Freedom of Information and Related Laws:

– The adoption of a comprehensive law on Free Access to Information based on international standards should be finalised in Azerbaijan.

– All three countries should develop a strategy jointly with the media and NGOs and a comprehensive strategy for the implementation of the laws.

– All public institutions and government departments should establish procedures and mechanisms (training, public hours, appointment of information officers, setting up information management systems, creating and maintaining official web sites) to effectively enable the media and the public to access information held by the institution.

– Official web sites should be established, maintained and regularly updated.

– Oversight over the observation of these laws and standards should be ensured and carried out by parliaments, parliamentary commissions open to the public, commissions of public hearings and an independent information commission.

– Laws should be developed to create an independent review mechanism to provide protection for ‘whistleblowers’.

Regarding State Secrets:

– The State Secrets Acts and regulations should be amended in order to limit their applicability only to that information whose disclosure would significantly threaten the national security or territorial integrity of a nation.

– Rules by which information is classified should be made public. Information should be classified within a short period of being created. Information classified as secret should be reviewed periodically and be declassified no later than 20 years after it was classified. Independent bodies which review classification decisions should be created, such as ombudsmen or information commissioners.

– Criminal liability connected with the disclosure of state secrets should be limited in cases of public interest. Journalists should not be required to disclose their sources.

The Judiciary:

– The independence of the judiciary has to be strengthened in order to effectively enforce the right to freedom of information.

The Media and NGOs:

– Should promote awareness of access to information laws and monitor their use.

– Investigate all illegal restrictions on freedom of information, attacks on journalists, cases of punishment of journalists for seeking and publishing information regarded to be of public interest.

– The media should know their rights to access information under existing legislation and use those rights. Unlawful denials should be challenged and publicized.

Tbilisi, 26 October 2004