Yerevan Press Club Report “Armenian Media in 1998”

AT THE RECENT FORUM of journalists organised by UNESCO, the International Federation of Journalists, the International Confederation of Journalists Unions of the CIS, and the Journalists Union of Russia, a peculiar classification of CIS countries according to freedom of speech and press was presented. Armenia, together with Georgia and Moldova, appeared in the triad with most beneficent state of affairs.

1998 was indeed very scant in violations against journalists’ rights and freedom of the press in Armenia.

There were practically no cases of terrorising media representatives related with their professional duties. Neither were there new cases of ungrounded suits against journalists for slander or dissemination of libellous information.

Moreover, at the beginning of 1998 the worst violation of media rights in the post-soviet period was amended: Dashnak and pro-Dashnak media banned for three years were recovered to the information market.

It might be stated that there are no restrictions on journalists imposed from above today, i.e., even if they do exist, then they are self-imposed by the media outlets or their bosses. It is also an undeniable fact, that journalists are being handled with more care. This is encouraging and gives more clout to the profession.

NEVERTHELESS, it would be wrong to speak about absolute progress in the media. We have specifically used the word “wrong” instead of “early,” since resolution of the problems discussed below is not visible on the horizon, yet.

As a rule, when the Armenian media are diagnosed, it is the poor economic condition that is broached first. Lately, the flow of money to the media has grown considerably. In a number of days three competitive TV stations were inaugurated, with such technical basis of which the independent TV stations wouldn’t have dreamed about a year before. There are eight dailies published in Yerevan, in fact, four of them – in 16/A3 pp. or 8 /A2 pp. Two years ago appearance of the first publication with such volume was evaluated as a revolutionary fact.

However, in most cases, revenues are not incurred from advertising and sales, but from political parties, groups and related businesses. The media market in Armenia with its shopwindows (maybe more than before) is still geared towards those who place political orders and pay for them.

In a sense, it is commendable that there are more media outlets and that the journalists are provided with an opportunity to earn better wages. However, the dream about a media serving its readers (listeners, viewers), establishing itself as conduits informing the public of everything worthy of its attention, and susceptible and responsive to society’s reactions and dispositions, still remains to be a dream.

ASIDE from some universal features (peculiar to the overtly politicised life of the post-soviet countries, communist traditions of using the media exclusively as an ideological weapon), the current status of the Armenia media is also explained by some other specific reasons. Armenia is deprived of rich natural resources – as oil in Azerbaijan or coastal access of Georgia. Therefore, the primary resource for which there is rigid competition, is power. Power gives an opportunity to be actively involved in distribution and the redistribution of material wealth. In fact, the mode in which this is realised is irrelevant. You might have your own business – more or less protected from the jolts of the market, taxation processes or voluntarism, or you might simply take payola and lay hold of social wealth… Without power, and as it turned out, without a deputy mandate as its most reliable attribute, there is no security for the future. Obviously, similar processes are undergoing in other countries as well, but the absolute form, in which the choice is made in favour of maintaining one’s power positions in Armenia, is truly astounding.

It is not by accident that now, on the eve of Parliamentary elections, presidents of flourishing companies abandon their jobs in favour of retaining their right to ballot as deputies. And it is not accidental that just a few months before the elections new media have appeared (or the existing media have increased their circulation).

If a professional Parliament assuming Parliamentary and entrepreneurial activities incompatible is relatively unusual for us, then a desire to possess a private print or electronic tribune is not something new. Though new features have also emerged in this area.

AS MENTIONED at one of the seminars organised by the Yerevan Press Club in co-operation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, some of the parties and deputies during the election campaign of 1995 toyed around with papers. They could open an outlet a month prior to the elections, show themselves off, unmask the positions of political opponents and shut it down. And often without having paid off the journalists’ wages in full. This time things are quite different: media are designed for a larger scale and perspective; the struggle for power will not be boiled down to elections only. Technologies to provoke scandals are worked out, eruption of compromising facts, denigration of whoever and whatever it might take, and even of what is most sacred will be allowed. (It is symptomatic, that nobody makes a stake on positive images.) This is not just “toying” around; these are weapons. And the right to make use of them is entrusted to journalists, who will have a strong hand and who will not have professional sentiments. In this light, a number of replacements in the media leadership – both official and party – seems to be quite understandable. The YPC newsletter has referred to such facts in detail.

And again, our society sets off for an election campaign with a large deficit of media which would have thrived on providing truthful information, helped in being better oriented and knowledgeable in the endless exchange with barrages of slime.

ADOPTED from the times of the soviet five-year planning, it seems, the annual YPC reports have made it a tradition to give a name to each year, in terms of its significance for the media. Thus, 1996 was a year of “cautious optimism,” 1997 – “a year of unfulfilled hopes.” 1998 in this row deserves an even more pessimistic title – “a year of complete disappointment.” Characterisation of the last two years were related to the state’s endeavours in liberalising the media, establishment of the public sector and reinforcement of the independent.

Unfortunately, there has been no progress, on the contrary, there was backslide, both in the legislative and the practical spheres. This dismal conclusion might strip away all our optimism expressed in the beginning of this report. The state of affairs is such, that we can’t be content with what we have. Dynamic steps are necessary, also on the part of the government, which would bring the Armenian media closer to a civil society.

MEANWHILE, the RA National Assembly did not find time after all, just to contemplate (let alone anything more) on the necessity of revising the Law “On Press and Other Media Outlets.” This law, acting from 1991 and the only one regulating the media, is in contradiction with every single letter of the new and quite progressive Civil Code adopted this year. The ideas underlying the draft “On TV and Radio” under discussion for two years now, stink with mildew, at the best. And were it not for the timely interference of the Council of Europe experts, the smell would have marred the independent broadcasters completely. Anyway, even with this interference things are not much better. Elaboration of the Broadcast law is postponed for an indefinite time, and the future of many independent TV and Radio channels is as ambiguous and hazy.

Instead of serious work on the draft laws on press and broadcasting, which would have allowed to get rid of many justified protests in the address of the official media, the Armenian Parliament spent a lot of means and energy on harnessing those outlets. While doing that, it allowed violations of the official paper charters, and interference in the programming policy of the National Television. And in addition, took to analysing a draft to transfer the state broadcaster under the jurisdiction of a super-politicised institution.

The executive branch also tries to keep up with the legislative. Recently, the State Department of Information and Publications was delegated to elaborate a draft “On Television an Radio,” which would have allowed to keep the state TV and Radio broadcasting for the nearest future. In general, the Cabinet of Ministers has successfully killed all initiations on privatising official newspapers, the distribution network of periodicals and the publishing houses…

The government has also turned down the journalistic unions’ suggestion in using the 80 mln. drams of Budgetary allotment for 1998 to encourage healthy financial and economic activities of the media. Preferences in distribution were made in favour of the “good-old” Soviet levelling-distributory method.

And finally, the planned tariff increase on utilising air frequencies might have most dramatic consequences. Here parallels with the printed press do come to the mind.

AT THE DAWN of independence in Armenia, the emerging newspapers and magazines were being considered as independent businesses by the publishers. However, disruption of power supply and economic difficulties multiplied with the non-friendly attitude of the authorities, did not allow these buds to take root. Lack of government policy to support fledgling independent media outlets (for instance, privatisation and taxation benefits at the beginning of their activities) resulted in party publications (in status or essence) flooding the media market. Today the same danger looms before independent TV and Radio broadcasting, which also started as small businesses, and which in due support could have grown into medium and large-sized businesses. However, the planned endeavours in this relation might result in monopolisation of the air by politically engaged TV channels.

POSSIBLY, “complete disappointment” applied to a year which has passed without a significant scandal in the life of the Armenian media and without persecution of journalists, might seem to be quite a strong term. However, two essential factors provide grounds for deep pessimism.

First, in lieu of the current media situation in Armenia all illusions, that the authorities are interested in radical reforms in the sphere of publishing and information have evaporated.

Second, in lieu of its current status the Armenian media have little chances to be in the avant-garde of transition processes, and stimulate such. In the best case, they can console themselves that they are not far behind from reforms in other spheres. For instance, from the legal and juridical reform, or structural reforms in the economy, etc.

In other words, 1998 was a year of progressing stagnation for the Armenian media, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in 1999. It would be nice to be wrong in this last assumption…