Yerevan Press Club Report “Armenian Media in 1996”
We, the Armenian journalists, have always had difficulty in answering the question asked by our Western colleagues and experts: is the press in Armenia free? One can understand those who ask this question. It is always desirable to learn the most important, and – right away.
However, time and again, one has to recall the common truth: freedom is a relative notion. Hence, it is more useful and serious to talk not about whether our press is free but, rather, about the state of things with the conditions for the free press to exist. The three main conditions are: economic independence of media, democratic legislation and its implementation, and high professional level of journalists.
The first condition is the economic independence of media, the self-sustainability of the informational-publishing business. In 1996, only the news agencies were self-sustainable (this refers, of course, only to the private agencies. The state-owned agency “Armenpress”, despite the endeavours to switch to commercial rails, has not managed to get rid of the inertia to live in someone’s ward, and is still in need for subsidies). This type of informational-publishing business is self-sustainable for some obvious reasons: low publishing costs on the one hand, and rather a high price for information that foreign consumers are willing to pay, on the other. In fact, it is the foreign consumers at whose expense the self-sustainability is being ensured. The internal market in no way could have supported the Armenian news agencies.
The television, radio and the print press can only envy their colleagues from news agencies “Noyan Tapan”, SNARK, “Fact”, “ARKA”… True, some local commercial television- and radio-companies have also managed to attain economic independence. However, it has become possible only owing to the significant aid by foreign foundations and the same low production expenses. The main portion of broadcasting time is being occupied by entertainment programs of foreign production, expenses for which are practically unnoticeable. As for the national Television and Radio, it is still early to talk about their self-sustainability.
The print press which had been deteriorating by the end of 1995, a little recuperated in 1996, and is optimistically looking into the future. There is a tendency towards increase in print-run; and if advertisement providers finally happen to take notice of the newspapers, then one can dream about self-sustainability of print media. A year ago, we talked about 6 levels of freedom of the press. Let us recall that conditional division, in order to define once again where we, the Armenian journalists, stand:
– the first, lowest, level is the state monopoly over media in a totalitarian society;
– the second level – pluralistic, though fully biased partisan press in a highly politicized multi-party society;
– the third level – the press financed by outside businesses and, respectively, obeying them;
– and, finally, the fourth level, starting from which one can talk about the freedom of the press – independent and self-sustainable informational-publishing business…
Today, we will not go to the higher, inaccessible for us in the nearest future, levels. Let us recall only that last year we placed the Armenian media at the second level of politically biased press. Touch wood, but this year our press can step up (or, at least, try to climb) to the third level. The interest of successful businessmen in media is noticeable, and this interest is incurred not by political, but rather, business considerations. Of course, it is not worth cherishing hopes in the readiness of the business world to sponsor media. And mostly because the third level is not necessarily followed by the fourth, when the press ceases to be an unprofitable appendix of a business, and grows into an independent and self-sustainable enterprise. Sometimes, social-political development leads to a fall from the third to the second level. That is what exactly happened in Russia. Big businesses first established their indivisible authority over media, and then, after being convinced in the complete paralysis of the state structures, started making claims for political power. Thus a significant part of their print press and almost the whole television have started servicing clans in their fierce struggle for power. Unhidden political involvement and bias of many prominent Russian journalists are in a vexing dissonance with their professional chivalry of the recent past.
An important component of economic independence of media is overcoming the state monopoly over production and distribution of information products. Certain perspectives here are coupled with the process of breaking the state monopoly over a number of entities relevant to media. The process has been initiated by the previous government, which declared a principled approach: denationalization should be carried out first of all in the interests of the press itself. However, the probable delay in concrete decisions due to the replacement of officials is fraught with consequences, when in the current vague situation the shadow structures catch all the fish, and there would be nothing left shortly.
A positive step has been the establishment of the Media Association of Armenia in 1996. The new organisation which united the majority of the heads of the leading Armenian media outlets, and, more precisely, its board has come up with concrete proposals on privatisation of a number of premises and sites that used to be subordinated to the Ministry of Information of the RA. The proposals are based on the principle of maximum fairness in allocating editorial premises, with a subsequent transfer of the ownership to the media outlet. The fixed assets owned by a media outlet would become an important factor for their economic independence in the perspective. That would give them confidence in their future and, besides, would allow, for example, to receive credits for collateral. The return proposal by the Ministry of Privatisation and Foreign Investments of the RA on leasing those premises to the editorial offices without compensation, seems incomplete and not contributing to the development of free press. In other words, the proposal has revealed the attitude towards a media outlet as towards an institute which is in eternal need for “feeding” and subsidies, and is deprived of independence. Unfortunately, such a mentality is typical of some our colleagues- journalists, as well.
Besides, proposals by the Media Association Board had a provision on privileged allocation of shares of “Parberakan” and “Haymamoul” publishing-houses exclusively amongst the newspapers, and this would have also contributed to the economic independence of print media.
Since we have talked about denationalization, I would like to mention also the proposals by the YPC on the state radio, television and other media outlets. According to the commonly accepted in the civilised world approach, state media should not exist at all in the internal Armenian market. Only those state structures that deal solely with external propaganda can have the right to exist. It is also important to take into account, that denationalization does not necessarily imply privatisation. For example, a complete transfer of the current State Television and Radio to private hands would lead to its vulgar commercialization. That is why, it is necessary that one television- and one radio company receive the status of public companies. That is, they would receive support from the state budget, being subordinated not to the state structures, but a public council, and ensure the minimum of information, social-political, cultural and educational programs required for the country.
DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATION AND ITS IMPLEMENTATION
The Law of the RA “On the Press and Other Media” adopted in 1991 has become a sort of a “holly cow”. It is not of any use at all either to the authorities, or to journalists – the law has a merely declarative character and does not contain any working mechanisms for protection of freedom of speech, as well as for responsibility and accountability of the press. Nevertheless, both the authorities and – what is particularly strange – the journalists themselves, treat it with certain respect. At the same time, it is repressive by its spirit: it has an article “On Inadmissibility of Abusing the Freedom of Speech” which absurdly equals “unverified” and “falsified” information, leaving by that a theoretical possibility for the court to shut down all the acting media outlets in Armenia. At the same time, the Law does not contain any provision whatsoever, about guarantees for freedom of the press. That is why, I am a little surprised by the compliments that the document receives from some parliamentarians and journalists. Under its present contents, the most positive feature of the Law is that it is not working. However, in the conditions of a post-totalitarian society, the legislative vacuum is not favourable for free press and journalists, since any unexplored part of the legal field becomes a “field for fools”, and is being used against – rather than in – the interests of democracy.
Perhaps, the tender nostalgic feelings towards the still acting legislation on media appeared in June 1996, after the journalists got acquainted with the new draft law “On Media” designed by the Ministry of Justice of the RA. Unlike the former one, it included rather effective mechanisms for making journalists answerable, while did not provide any guarantees for protection of their rights. I believe, only the active involvement of journalists who criticised the official draft law and elaborated their own alternative version did slow down the victorious procession to the National Assembly of the “freedom-of-speech-grave-digger” born in the Ministry of Justice.
Thus, discussion of the draft law “On Media” is postponed for indefinite time, but, as it appeared, the danger was on the watch for us from another side, as well. After consideration at the respective commission of the parliament, the draft Law of the RA “On Television and Radio” has been presented for public discussion. It is assumed, that the Law will be approved at the on-going session of the National Assembly. Theoretically, such laws should be designed as a kind of “superstructure” to the law on media, to regulate specific issues relevant to television and radio broadcasting. On what “basis” is this “superstructure” assumed to rest? Maybe, on the Law of 1991, which is not working and should be changed? The change is not envisaged for the current session; so, it means the “superstructure” will appear earlier than the “basis”. No doubt, this “superstructure”, too, will have to be replaced in the future, to fit with the “basis”. This is but a nonsense from the point of view of building an effective legal system.
In the essence, it is senseless to evaluate the draft Law “On Television and Radio” in such a situation. However, since it is presented to the public discussion anyway, I would like to make one principal observation. The draft law envisages maintenance of the State Television and Radio, which is not acceptable in itself. The year 1996, and the presidential election campaign, in particular, have demonstrated that the State Television and Radio is one of the factors destabilizing our society to the greatest extent.
Continuing the theme of perpetuity and correlation of legislative acts, one cannot resist mentioning that, for establishment of a comprehensive media-regulating legal system, it is necessary also to supplement the already adopted Laws of the RA “On Advertisement”, “On Copyright” and “On State Secrets” with stipulations concerning the press directly. Today, these 3 documents almost completely ignore their natural relation to media activity.
Now, let us talk about implementation of laws. In April 1996, the Ministry of Justice allowed a rude violation of the acting legislation in the argument about the newspaper “Azg”. Lawyers from the Ministry of Justice allowed themselves to replace the founder of “Azg”, contrary to the procedure stipulated in the charter of the newspaper, which, by the way, had been approved by the Board of the same Ministry! The court, fortunately, proved to be wiser, and returned “Azg” to its rightful founders.
But then, in two other cases, the court, acting in compliance with the letter of the current Law of the RA “On the Press and Other Media”, clearly demonstrated all the repressive essence of that Law. In March 1996, publication of the newspaper “Lragir” was suspended for three months. Not contesting the validity of the court’s decision, one should in no way approve of such measures as closure and suspension being undertaken against the press. The reason is that these measures extremely negatively influence the information market. At the same time, they stem from the acting legislation. More acceptable is the system of progressing penalties as the only sanction against violation of laws by the press. This proposal is reflected in the YPC draft law “On Media”.
In August 1996, the court applied against the journalists of the “Yerevan” State Radio program the notorious 6th article of the acting Law “On the Press and Other Media”, which stipulates responsibility for “false” and “unverified” information. Such a decision contradicted all commonly accepted in the civilised world norms: to defend himself against the accusations of defamation, it is enough for a journalist to prove that the covered by him topic is of social significance, and that he has acted professionally when investigating facts. And there is no need for any legal confirmation of the reliability of facts. This legal norm is also envisaged in the YPC draft law “On Media”. Meanwhile, the current Armenian Law allowed the court to charge the Radio journalists who raised a socially significant topic of bread underweight and who revealed sufficient carefulness when covering it.
Although the Constitution and the laws of the RA do declare inadmissibility of censorship, some forms of it were pursued in 1996. Because of some publications undesirable for the “Haymamoul” leadership, the newspaper “Ayzhm” was sold with delays. On the verge of presidential elections, the majority of the State Television programs had undergone censorship. Various authoritarian structures pressured the staff-correspondents of foreign media outlets with regard to the coverage of “the September 25” events.
Last but not least, one has to note many cases of unjustified delay in registration of media outlets at the Ministry of Justice. This, too, speaks for a “poor” implementation of a “poor” law. The draft law “On Media” developed by the YPC proposes to change the legally established registration process, for it to become a merely technical procedure.
ENHANCING THE PROFESSIONAL LEVEL OF JOURNALISTS
This is also an important condition for freedom of the press: only a truly professional journalist and professional media can be actually free.
In 1996, a certain change occurred in this respect. Training courses for journalists were organised by the Union of Journalists of Armenia, Television-studios “A1+” (in Yerevan) and “Shant” (in Gyumri). Several seminars for journalists were held by the YPC. A number of teaching and reference handbooks in journalism were published. A group of Armenian media representatives took part in internships abroad. It is hard to ascertain that this move has already positively influenced the level of our press. However, one cannot doubt that the system of enhancing the qualification of media workers, which is being developed due to journalistic organisations and foreign foundations, will sooner or later yield good results.
At the same time, the unstable condition of the majority of media outlets, the impromptu work of periodicals, lack of the tradition to thoroughly elaborate material, and constant staff “migration” hinder the formation and development of journalistic schools with a “trade mark”. Such genres as journalistic investigation, essays and features, which are indispensable for the modern free press, are not being developed.
Probably, the acquisition of skills in various genres should start already at a university with assistance of professors-theoreticians and journalists-practicians. (The YPC has started realisation of a short-term training program at the Department of Journalism of the Yerevan State University and intends to continue the collaboration).
Thus, one has to acknowledge that proper conditions for the free press activity in Armenia are far from being raised. However, we should welcome the tendencies for development of these conditions taken shape in 1996.
MEDIA AND PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
Of course, the main event of 1996 for the Armenian media has become the presidential elections. The results of the Armenian media monitoring during the election campaign were published in the second issue of the YPC newsletter. In order not to repeat myself, I would mention only that all the reports and presentations of international observers, mainly based on the YPC monitoring within the framework of the “Media and Democratic Elections” project financed by the Tacis Democracy Programme, emphasised the unfair allocation of broadcast access and newspaper space by the state media outlets (naturally, in the favour of Levon Ter-Petrossian), and their biased (naturally, in a negative sense) coverage of Vazgen Manoukian’s campaign.
A “historical” event occurred during the municipal elections in November 1996. Some regional private television stations attempted to report immediately from the precincts. This is the main and necessary form of elections coverage, which defines the degree of people’s trust in the national (presidential) elections results. This has been achieved at a regional level, in particular, by the Gyumri television-studio “Shant”, true – for the price of subsequent problems with the tax inspectors.
VIOLATIONS OF JOURNALISTS’ RIGHTS
The most common form of violations remains beating. In 1996, there were 2 people beaten, as far as the cases with an obvious correlation between beating and the journalistic activity of the victim are concerned. Radio journalist Vardan Vardanian was attacked on 25 November, and political journalist Gagik Mkrtchian was beaten by the Ministry of Interior officers during his illegal arrest on 26 September. The assault on the editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Yerevanyan Orer”, Mikayel Hayrapetian, right in the editorial office on 7 March this year, proves that even after a decline in the election sentiments, the journalists are still under the threat of aggression. Moreover, none of the cases recorded within the recent 7 years, has been ever exposed by the law-enforcement bodies.
THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF MEDIA IN 1996
In order not to close this report on a sad note, let us sum up the positive outcomes of the year:
– in June 1996, for the first time, journalists not merely criticised the official draft law “On Media”, but decided to elaborate (and they did it in December 1996) an alternative draft;
– in September, the first Armenian professional periodical for journalists – the “Yerevan Press Club” newsletter – was issued;
– in the end of September – beginning of October 1996, for the first time in the recent years the Armenian media revealed capacity for thorough and multidimensional analysis of the shocking events following the presidential election;
– in December 1996, heads of the majority of leading Armenian media outlets realised the urge to unite and jointly solve common problems. This is how the Media Association of Armenia was born.
These outcomes give a ground for cautious optimism. Cautious – since no irreversible changes have taken place so far; besides, still new efforts should be taken to assure progress in full.