Yerevan Press Club Report “Armenian Media in 2000”
THE YEAR 2000 had all chances to become the most boring one for a researcher in the history of media of the Third Armenian Republic. One of the first reasons for this is the fact that the year passed without elections, ordinary or extraordinary, although its first months were marked by incessant talks about either impeachment of the President or the dissolution of the Parliament. To have no elections means to have no tough fight for airtime and print media space among the candidates for the positions of “public servants”, to have no major fund injections from political advertising to the media budgets.
The authorities shut down no media and made no attempt to do so, no infamous attacks on the journalists and media were registered; in this regard, the years 1994-1995 were much more eventful. No event occurred to bring the warriors of the pen from the drowse and to make them reveal their features, previously disguised – as it happened during mass political repressions after the Presidential Elections of September 1996 or after the bloodshed in the Armenian Parliament in October 1999. The media did not have to heroically overcome the energy and economic ordeals that they faced in 1992-1993. Yet, at the same time the economy of the country inspired no hope of strengthening the information market, as it happened in 1997. The Fate did not grant historical events, such as the first multipartisan elections in 1990, the Independence Referendum in 1991 or the “velvet” coup d’etat of 1998.
Even the continuing reduction in the circulations of newspapers and the growth of general distrust towards the word are no longer acutely felt, as it was in 1994 or 1999, and were a mere reason to feel sad in the course of last year…
However, some not vivid but rather symptomatic occurrences of year 2000 demonstrated that the challenges faced by Armenian media within the past few years retain their urgency. Moreover, never before has there been such a dense succession of political, economic, legal, social and moral obstacles that obstructed the progress of media – like a defense wall during penalty hit in soccer. In other words, the eager and attentive observer had no time to feel bored. Let us analyze the key points in the media life in 2000 in their chronological order.
The beginning of the year was marked by a true information war. The majority of Armenian media were divided into two wings, and, as the tradition goes, the newspapers showed the borderline off most distinctly. The litmus, determining who was who, was in the coverage of the situation around the tragic events of October 27, 1999. The report of Yerevan Press Club on Armenian media in 1999 mentioned that, having mostly responsibly and in due time reacted to the attack itself, the journalists quite soon refused the role of the dispassionate chronicle-writers and returned to the more usual activities for the Armenian press: propaganda provision for the interests rather clearly held by certain political groups in the context of October 27. The first months of 2000 were the climax of the media use in the struggle for power, which, as many people felt, was out in the street after the major political elite of Armenia were shot dead by the terrorists.
The media, which found itself under the influence of one political wing, that was formed after October 27, thought the arrests made by the investigation group to be grounded, appealed to not interfere with the investigators’ work, hinted that the terrorists can be traced back to the closest surrounding of the President, if not to himself personally, supported the demands for resignation of people from the President’s team and even for the impeachment of the head of the State.
The media, controlled by the opposing wing, covered the situation in exactly the contrary way: accused the investigators of political involvement and partiality, assessed some of the arrests as unmotivated, disseminated information on violence against the prisoners to “beat out” the evidence needed, called the President the only guarantee of stability and justice.
The journalists of different media spoke with different degrees of assertion and decency. The two dailies that occupied most radical positions in the confronting wings, “Haikakan Zhamanak” and “Hayots Ashkhar”, were quite similar to each other both in the tone and the ease with which the political opponents were labeled: the law of extremities’ gravitation at work! The war on the newspaper pages and on the air in early 2000 became extraordinarily brutal, and involved even those who were not in the habit or in the situation to indulge into political intrigues. “Azg” daily which had gained the image of a respectable and balanced edition, broke loose and upset its readers by a series of publications, disallowed by journalistic ethics. However hard did the Parliament dailies “Hayastani Hanrapetutiun” and “Respublica Armenia” try to look neutral and “centrist”, the influence of two, notably different, confronting wings on them was obvious at a closer look.
The evaluations above are not a result of mere observation but are confirmed by the monitoring conducted by Yerevan Press Club in May 1998 – March 2000. It is not incidental that the publication of the interim results of this research caused the irritation of some of our colleagues that sought to avoid the public revelation of their “political face”. The monitoring produced another distressing result: before the October tragedy of 1999 the political involvement was characteristic of newspapers mainly, while the newscasts of the electronic media tended to be increasingly impartial; yet, after the terrorist attack in the Parliament some of the private TV companies were frequently used as weapons for political struggle. Unfortunately, this lot was also faced by the National Television of Armenia (the state television), which had previously started to refrain from castigation of the opposition, its main role until mid-90s, but returned to it since the end of 1999.
The polarization of the political elite at the border of 1999-2000 revealed another sad truth: the reduction of the partisan newspapers in number, re-registration of some of them under private, independent ownership, as well as the change in status of the state media, the formation of various Councils to manage their operations, did not however eliminate the total political control over the Armenian media market. The latter, as in previous years, is oriented towards realization of political orders and not on the satisfaction of the information needs of the society. In the critical situations that arise occasionally in our country, the media mostly do not so much inform as manipulate the public opinion. They do not so much help the compatriots to develop a civil attitude at the crucial moments, but try to attract them towards this or that political group, pursuing its own narrow interests.
The ultimatum declaration of “Unity” faction (representing the majority in the Parliament) made on March 3 and voicing the discontent of the faction with the National Television of Armenia (NTA) for having covered in “Haylour” newscast the press-conference of the attorneys for defense of the suspects on the case of October 27, demonstrated that our leading political groups hold firmly to their principles – not only of openly exploiting the media under their control, but also of hushing those who do not conform. The leaders of the parties representing “Unity” faction together with the that time Prime Minister and the Military Prosecutor demanded the President of the country to sign the resignation of the Executive Director of the NTA and the Head of the RA President Office.
Such radical measures were suggested as a penalty for covering an event which had really taken place, had been public and of undoubted public interest. To put it otherwise, this was a penalty for the journalists of the NTA fulfilling their professional duty!
Curiously enough, the authors introduced the issue of resignation to the President although this question was exclusively in the competence of the Board of Authorized Representatives of the Founder of the State Close Joint Stock Company “National Television of Armenia”, and neither the President of the country nor the Head of his Office, whose resignation was also demanded by “Unity”, had any formal connection with it. Thus, the faction that possessed most of the seat in the legislative body of the country, the Prime Minister, who, by the way, appointed the members of that very Board of Authorized Representatives (?!), and one of the leaders of the prosecutor’s office (a body that supervises the law implementation) appealed to the President and demanded to solve an issue being fully aware of the illegitimacy of the solution offered!
After the journalistic community began a powerful wave of protests against this undisguised attempt of violating the freedom of speech, the authors of the statement started making explanations – and every one of them was more awkward than the previous one. One of the points they made was that if a private TV company covered the press conference they would have made no objections, but the state-owned television should have kept silence! This position was probably to be understood in the following way: the censorship was abolished in the country, but the state-owned media have nothing to do with this achievement of democracy. It should be noted though that this approach towards the media subsidized by the state budget, that is, by taxpayers, is traditional for Armenia. Consequently, the television, radio and newspapers having special obligation before the society funding them never did perform their mission, concealing from the attention of the citizens many urgent issues, varnishing the reality or, on the contrary, throwing dirt on the opposition according to the principle: those who are not with us are against us.
Another proclamation of the authors was no less ridiculous: the press conference could be covered in three minutes but not in seven… Of course, our leading politicians were in no way concerned over the professional norms, which truly do not allow for such lengthy stories in the newscasts. Their discontent is based on the ineffaceable desire to control the media, the absolute intolerance of the principle of editorial independence.
This incident, having “used up” a lot of nerves of the Armenian journalists ended “more or less” peacefully. Yet, as a whole, even at the joining point of the millennia the political leadership of Armenia retained, unfortunately, quite productive levers that allow them “to rule” the information sphere.
In April 2000 Karabagh journalist Vahram Aghajanian was sentenced to year’s imprisonment on a libel suit, and after a cassation complaint, the Supreme Court of Mountainous Karabagh deferred the sentence by two years. The latter decision allowed Aghajanian to be released from prison where he was kept as a criminal, however this actually deprived him of the right to exercise his profession. Not enduring the misfortune of the son, his mother passed away.
The legal and information fields of Armenia and Mountainous Karabagh are closely interrelated and influence each other, so the events in Stepanakert touch upon the Armenian journalistic milieu most directly. This is especially true in the view of the fact that in 1999 Nikol Pashinian, the Yerevan colleague of Aghajanian, found himself in a similar situation. The particulars and the legal aspect of the both cases are covered in detail in the YPC materials (see the reports of the Yerevan Press Club Commission on Protection of Freedom of Speech on violations of journalists’ rights in 1999 and 2000 ). A new scrupulous analysis or a detailed chronicle is beyond the task of the present report. At the same time, it is not unnecessary to review the criminal persecutions of journalists in the broad social and political context, to draw conclusions with the experience of the past months.
First, as many international human rights’ and journalistic associations mention, the mere possibility of imprisoning a journalist for disseminating invalid information or unverified facts (the evil intention or the obvious public damage is not obligatory in this case) allows to qualify the media in Armenia only as “partly free”.
Second, the Armenian society has not so far developed immunity against the unjustifiable cruelty and cynicism of those at power. For an action of journalist, which deserves at maximum a refutation or a response in the media, his dignity is humiliated: he is demonstrated in public with his hair shaved close, in cage with handcuffs… The professional and, as in the case of Aghajanian, the human fates are broken. And this causes no public indignation. Nobody bears at least moral responsibility. If this is possible with the journalists, the so-called “watchdogs” of the society, how helpless are those whose rights and interests are to be “watched” by journalists?
Third, the journalist community itself has not developed effective mechanisms to protect the profession. On the one hand, in all situations when an issue of supporting the colleagues arose, Armenian journalists displayed solidarity and unity for only a short period of time. After this the specific political interests of the patrons revealed themselves – and they usually cross each other in any incident – and the firmly holding together colleagues dispersed by opposing camps, one of which continued to defend the violated rights of the colleague, and the other – to justify those who violated these rights… This happened in the above-mentioned episodes with the National Television, Nikol Pashinian, Vahram Aghajanian and in all other cases, when only the unity could ensure the maximum result. On the other hand, the Armenian journalists did not manage to establish common professional principles, develop an ethical code that would allow to distinguish in a more or less precise way between what can be done and what cannot for people who possess one of the most powerful “mass annihilation weapons”: the Word and the channels of its dissemination. The absence of self-regulation norms (not to be confused with self-censorship which is an implicit form of outer restriction) gives the false feeling of absolute freedom but leads to absolute helplessness. This gives those who are fond of shortening the tongue of the media an argument: if you cannot determine the rules of the game yourself, let the courts deal with you using theirs. This gives grounds for the yellow press to feign respectability, and the scandal-making instigator – to claim the role of the standard bearer of freedom of speech. This allows the politicians to manipulate journalism in complete accordance with its tag of “the second ancient profession”. The writing cohort itself has nothing to do but wait when those at power, whether it is the government of the country or the Council of Europe, will present it with what it might have taken itself.
In a few months the plans of Arkady Vardanian, Moscow businessman and the President of “XXI Century” International Association, to create a media empire were ruined with an ease of a finger snap. The last stone from the basement of this idea was taken out by the staff of “Novoye Vremya” newspaper that refused the sponsorship of Vardanian because of the controversies over the political direction of the edition. “NV” found it possible to save its face and survive without a rich patron. But this one is the only relatively painless outcome in the series of “divorces” between media and Vardanian. In June, the failed media tycoon refused funding “Noratert” daily which had been founded only a year before, and the latter stopped its existence. Later he started a conflict with the staff of the recently acquired “FM 107” radio station, changed it, and, finally, sold the radio station too. It took Vardanian only a few months to found “Nazareth” TV company, create a huge hullabaloo around it, employ a group of TV professionals and… bury the enterprise.
All these “achievements” happened in rather a short period of time: only half a year. This seems to be normal: a person has the right to do with his property whatever he finds necessary. But behind these whims of a rich man, there is the breaking media market, the unrealized plans of dozens of professionals, and the unpaid salaries of people, who, in contrast to Vardanian, have to win their bread daily. How can one talk about the public influence of the media, professionalism and the dignity of journalists, if they can be treated in such a way? And there are no mechanisms to protect this, so important sphere, which is loudly named “the fourth estate”: no trade unions, no antitrust committees, no support funds for the media in critical situations, no system of protecting the intellectual property…
An objection can be raised that the “empire” of Arkady Vardanian was ruined because he started an acute conflict with the authorities and found himself in prison. Certainly, the entrepreneur who had entered the political world within a few months, was treated inappropriately cruelly. Yet, there are no facts to confirm the pressure of the authorities on the media owned by Vardanian or the artificial obstruction of his media projects. And the problem is that journalists, newspapers, TV and radio channels were viewed by their owner as a means of attaining the short-term political goals: first, through their loyalty and later – through their tough opposition to the leaders of Armenia. Having not justified, or, as it happened with “Novoye Vremya”, having refused to justify the expectations of Vardanian, they lost his interest.
The treatment of media as of a disposable item is traditional for Armenian political and economic elite. The previous years are rich in the examples of newspapers and even TV channels being founded for short-term political (usually, pre-election) campaigns. A month or two of modest funding and ambitious plans, after which another journalistic crew is thrown out at the fate’s mercy with no hopes to receive the promised compensations. Yet, the year 2000, to a great extent “owing” to the President of “XXI Century” Association, surpassed the previous years in the regard of impertinent media treatment.
Another evidence of underestimation of the role of media by the contemporary Armenian society and the state institutes of Armenia is the situation with two official newspapers – the Armenian-language “Hayastani Hanrapetutiun” and Russian-language “Respublica Armenia”. The dispute on whether the democratic country needs state-owned press has been going on for many years already both in the journalistic and the political milieu. Although the majority feels inclined towards the negative answer to that question, the subsidization of the official press is getting harder and harder, the state-owned media still exist.
What happened to “Respublica Armenia” in 2000 cannot even be called existence. For debts to the publishing house the publication of this parliament daily was stopped in June, then it was recognized a bankrupt and did not appear on the newspaper stalls until the end of the year. “Hayastani Hanrapetutiun” ended the year without such incidents, but with permanent financial troubles. The prestige and the popularity of these newspapers went down immediately. (Can the British or the Americans imagine that one day the Times or the Washington Post will stop issuing? This event would be equal to a fall of meteorite. And the citizens of Armenia during 6 months went to sleep and woke up without a daily which, according to one of its former editors, was to perform a similar mission in our society.)
Even people at power who always used the official media in their political interests lost their interest to them and gave their preference to the tribunes of the formally independent but controlled media. Yet, the state did not have the courage to give up these editions, although they lost their purpose and functions. “HH” and “RA”, in a changed status (the legislative body was replaced by the executive under the name of “founder”) did pass to the new millennium. It looks like the Fathers of the Nation, due to their mentality, cannot take the risk of getting rid of Soviet chimeras, and one of them are the state media. Do they feel more secure with them?
The state television can in no way be called a chimera, and the interest of the authorities in retaining it is quite understandable. Several observers maintain that the TV set with the “first button on” played a decisive role in Robert Kocharian’s victory in the severe battle with opponents in late 1999 – early 2000.
It is not incidental that the whole intrigue of the many-year discussion of the draft law on television and radio was restricted for the authorities to the solution of a difficult problem: how can the condition of becoming a member of the Council of Europe (transformation of state television into public one and creation of independent bodies regulating the broadcasting sphere) be realized with control over the air being retained?
The discussion around this draft law created a rare precedent in the Armenian lawmaking practice when the public displayed activity and interest. Yerevan Press Club with the assistance of partnering organizations had prepared an alternative draft law. The private broadcasters used very possibility to voice their standpoint, and the media gave comprehensive coverage to all details of “the Law Battle”. A number of various non-governmental organizations sought to help the media in protecting their interests. The Standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture and Youth Issues could not ignore this active interest and, having organized the hearings, included both draft laws into the agenda…
However, on October 9, 2000, the suppressing majority of the RA National Assembly voted for the official version, which was subjected to severe criticism by journalists, lawyers, broadcasters, telecommunication professionals and international experts. The adoption of the law, which clearly contradicted the recommendations of the Council of Europe, coincided with the period when the question of inviting Armenia to become a member of this reputed organization was under consideration!
Why did the numerous factors expected to promote the adoption of a progressive law not work? There is only one answer: the lack of the appropriate political will of the Armenian lawmakers. First, the attitude of the deputies towards media as a not serious institute and the laws regulating their activities as secondary was manifest: many deputies (if not the majority) voted without even reading the draft law. Second, the whole Armenian political specter – from liberals to traditionalists – is unanimous in its reluctance to view media as a self-regulated organism. Therefore, the dispute between the authorities and the opposition lies not in the issue of greater or lesser degree of media independence, but in the issue of on WHOM they must depend.
As a consequence, the controversies between the President and the NA deputies on the RA Law “On Television and Radio” that caused the President to appeal to the Constitutional Court, belong to an aspect different from the criticism of journalists and international experts. The President and the Parliament cannot divide the authority of forming the bodies regulating the broadcasting sphere and their supervision. Yet, as the experience of many foreign countries shows, the issue must be the elimination or at least the minimization of political influence on these bodies as such.In other words, the idea of media independence and self-regulation has almost no allies in the Armenian political elite.
THUS, 2000, being a year when the issue of admitting Armenia to the European family was solved, and consequently was the year of recognition of its progress in democratic development, was not, however, marked by the expected positive shifts on the most essential dimensions of freedom of media.
The Armenian press remains mainly a stage for information wars but not a reliable tool of informing the society and implementing public control over all aspects of the life of the country.
The political establishment, both in its upper authorities and in opposition, does everything in its power to retain total control over media.
The idea of ensuring the information security of the citizens and the society is realized mainly through criminal prosecution of journalists.
There is no civilized information market and no labor protection for journalists. Business penetrates into media to solve only the short-term political goals, the media is not viewed as a field for purely economic investment. And the other side of the situation: neither the social rights of the workers nor the rights of consumers of information industry are on the agenda as such.
State-owned media and state-owned dissemination of media are retained as symbol of the media dependence.
One of the most urgent conditions for membership in the Council of Europe – the transformation of state television and radio into public and creation of independent bodies regulating the broadcasting sphere that would be free from political influence – is actually not realized.