Armenian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Arman Navasardyan, talking about issues in the diplomatic corps, unwittingly also talks about journalism.
These two professions are similar to each other, since they both deal with information (not to mention coordinating, filtering and framing this information in accurate language), and questions of both what and how are tantamount in these fields.
Do you agree that journalists, in some sense, also have to be diplomats, since in our information-saturated lives we all feel the need for diplomatic flexibility?
In diplomacy, information is of primary importance. At the end of the day, he who is better informed wins. One of the main issues of diplomacy is the procurement of information, without which carrying out the other functions (establishing friendly relations between countries and defending our interests abroad) is not possible.
Acquiring information is a very serious and interesting matter, which apart from simply receiving information also borders on propaganda; that is, by spreading information abroad, you make your country’s image and policies comprehensible.
Propaganda and diplomacy, of course, are not the same thing, but their boundaries are quite fluid. If you cross the boundary, you’ll be accused of meddling in another country’s internal affairs. Recently, for example, the British ambassador [to Armenia] allowed himself to interfere in Armenia’s internal affairs [in the matter of the upcoming presidential election being fated], which is considered an anti-diplomatic move. In this case, the ambassador might even be declared a persona non grata.
I get the impression that diplomats and journalists work in nearly the same way — they gather information (sometimes from open, other times from closed sources).
“In democratic countries there cannot be a monopoly — also in information. We here [in Armenia] have a monopoly in the most influential information sector — television”
Diplomacy has always worked closely with news media, since in the matter of procuring information news outlets play a formidable role. A diplomat is a professional if in an ocean of open information he is able not to get confused, bypassing and distinguishing misinformation and false or clearly fabricated information. Let me say, experience shows that diplomats working with sources of information have always been successful.
Can Armenia’s news media sector be considered independent?
In democratic countries there cannot be a monopoly — also in information. We here [in Armenia] have a monopoly in the most influential information sector — television. Though in the near future this will change (it’s already changing), and there will come a time when no government will be able to restrict, control, or apply sanctions on cyberspace. TV companies will effectively lose their power. Many news outlets around the world are already going digital — Newsweek, for example, issued its last print edition, giving preference to its digital format.
Specific to [Armenia’s] information is a mimicry of democracy: we have controlled television, newspapers having a certain amount of freedom, and free internet, which is changing the situation before our eyes.
Usually appearing in this transitional period are some news outlets that work dishonestly, writing anything that goes through their minds.
In Armenia’s news and information sector, several websites have sprouted that simply republish content from other sites. Don’t you think that a certain “watering down” of information is taking place?
There’s a good saying: authority perverts, but absolute authority perverts absolutely. Of course, news outlets can pervert (degenerate) society. I think that’s what’s happening here [in Armenia]. And it becomes somewhat difficult and problematic for thinking people to draw out the quintessence of useful information or to be guided correctly in political or diplomatic matters.
But let me assure you that even in barrier-placing, totalitarian regimes there is a need for good analysts. In general, procuring and analyzing information are twin brothers — if they’re not together then the information loses its effect.
Does it then become “yellow“?
Not necessarily. Simply, people read it and quickly forget it. Reading between the lines and finding a nugget of truth even in openly portrayed misinformation is serious work, an analytic activity.
Let me cite an example from the past: when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, at the time there were only 3 newspapers (Pravda, Izvestiya, and Komsomolskaya Pravda) and one radio station in the USSR, which operated under the full control of Glavlit, the censorship agency.
“Usually appearing in this transitional period are some news outlets that work dishonestly, writing anything that goes through their minds”
And based on those sources, German reconnaissance was able to conduct such an analysis that later (when the document became known) everyone was amazed at how such an in-depth analysis was possible. And it wasn’t espionage work but simply the correct use of information that was in open circulation.
“Yellow” pages are everywhere; it’s simply that next to them also have to be serious, or more accurately, indisputable sources. One of the world’s most serious news publications is France’s Le Monde. When French embassies want to present a document or decision, they first wait to see what Le Monde will write about it.
At one time the Financial Times had a commentator who was considered an employee at the level of government officials, his receptions gathering British ministers and high-ranking officials. And everyone simply watched his lips, since this analyst/journalist was considered one of the best experts in the economic sector in the UK.
Also based on journalism work was the espionage genius [Richard] Sorge.
I see one danger regarding online news media: it seems the Internet has embraced everything in it, and this approach also applies to the work of the diplomatic corps.
Many think there’s no no longer any need to incorporate the human factor, since it’s enough to press a button and know about everything. But experience shows that it’s by “taking pains,” by meeting people that it becomes possible to acquire truly important information.
States have always received confidential, very valuable information not from the Internet, but as a result of human connections.
News media generally is the best way to preach your country’s policies, to get your message heard.
Was Independent Armenia able to use the news industry the best way possible?
We lost that important moment, when it was possible to get the Karabakh issue out there and turn it into persuasive news policy for the world. Now the whole world believes we’re the aggressor.
But in the beginning it wasn’t like that; when the OSCE began its work (I was Armenia’s first representative there), what was happening in Karabakh was portrayed as a national liberation movement. And the matter of refugees wasn’t as poignant as it is now — there was more talk of the Armenian refugees.
But in 10 years the picture completely — nearly 180 degrees — changed. Now we’re “aggressors” and Azerbaijan has 1 million refugees. This means that in the information/propaganda struggle we have lost.
Why did that happen?
I think, history will give the answer to your question. You know, if diplomacy isn’t active and even attacking (especially in such situations), it always leads to losses. I don’t know why we took on a defensive position: winning on the battlefield, we actually lost in the diplomatic arena, failing to do the correct information-propaganda work.
On a related note, I want to ask a question: how many diplomats (moreover, ambassadors) do we have who in those countries where they work (I’m speaking about democratic countries, on which the world’s fate depends) are able to go to a reputable TV channel and say, “Give me the opportunity and airtime to talk about my country’s foreign policies.”
“Asking for an opinion over the phone is not journalism”
I’m sure, they’ll be given that opportunity. But I’m also sure that such diplomats fluently speaking foreign languages are few.
Of course, I understand that by saying this I become the dust in the eyes of our [Armenia’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But, regretfully I want to repeat that 50% (if not more) of our ambassadors working abroad are not professionals. If the ministry, say, sends a builder as an ambassador, it has to understand, that man cannot do much work.
Generally dilettantism is harmful in all professions — but in diplomacy and medicine it’s fatal.
And in journalism?
In journalism, being a dilettante is immoral.
Recently, I noticed that journalism has turned into a practice of seeking comments by telephone. They might call and say, come on, tell us your opinion on this or that matter. I get sort of irritated by this. Asking for an opinion over the phone is not journalism.
At the end of the day, the person expressing his opinion might be having dinner or taking a shower — how can the news that’s based on his opinion became the basis of quality journalism?
Personally, I highly respect the work of journalists, and during my state service I was as open as possible to the media both at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and abroad. We really have high-quality, magnificently prepared, analytically thinking journalists, who do politics, adding a sensible touch to public life.
In any case, I would like that we all accept the situation forgivingly and objectively. After all, we’ve lived for many years under the laws of a totalitarian regime, of a suppressed spring, which imposes a completely different philosophy. And when suddenly complete freedom is given, the spring always opens more than its natural state assumes.
After all, there is a childhood psychological disorder of failure which passes over time. I think the same thing will happen in Armenia’s news media. But when and on account of what, it’s hard to say.
In any case, it is desirable that there be certain criteria, which will be the result not of control but of every journalist’s internal control. And here the role of chief editors is very important, since they’re the ones who decide the news outlet’s policy.
In diplomatic work, for example, there are rules set in stone: every morning, the entire diplomatic team convenes for a brief advisory meeting, discusses the news from the media, and based on this as well as other information decides the day’s tasks for diplomats.
I think news teams have to work the same way.
How do foreign diplomats view [Armenia’s] news media sector? Do they get a complete picture?
Embassies that respect themselves, of course, armed with a magnifying glass, study and analyze the news media of a given country. I know particularly the US, Russian, and French embassies in Armenia, which compare news received from different sources, act this way, to determine the reliability of the information.
“Many think […] it’s enough to press a button and know about everything. But experience shows that it’s by ‘taking pains,’ by meeting people that it becomes possible to acquire truly important information”
At the end of the day, you can have 10 sources, of which, however, only one is credible. Accepted in the diplomatic sector is also corporate, affiliate work — I’m referring to the exchange of information on the host country’s internal and foreign policies within the diplomatic corps.
What would you isolate among the urgent problems in diplomatic work?
I would isolate securing national security, which cannot happen under conditions of strained relations with neighboring countries.
And if we want to get out of this current, quite burdensome situation, in the first place we need to manage our relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. And here high-quality, versatile, and skilled diplomacy can play a critical role. We certainly will get there. We need time, which, catastrophically, is shrinking.
But don’t you think that Armenian television, constantly keeping the image of the enemy alive, is harming this pursuit?
Of course it’s harming it — as well as the perilous sentence of living in a blockade for 100 years. In the context of your question you have to look at the interrelationship of statehood and nationalism, which is a very profound issue and a subject of a separate conversation.
By the way, we are going to try to answer this and other serious questions through the newly launched website diplomat.am, the motto of which is “Opening the brackets.” In accessible language we want to explain what diplomacy is and what its role is in the current stage of the development of history.
Interview conducted by Nune Hakhverdyan
This story was updated on Feb. 17, 2013, at 5:15 pm: “the dangerous tendency of living surrounded for 100 years” was changed to “the perilous sentence of living in a blockade for 100 years” and “a childhood illness of leftism” was changed to “a childhood psychological disorder of failure” as better translations of the original text.
A reference to “Financial Times commentator Rezerford” was removed as it could not be verified.