Armenian Helsinki Committee President, human rights advocate Avetik Ishkhanyan finds that the majority of people are victims of journalism. And today’s incomprehensible media sector will continue to remain incomprehensible as long as media outlets that are truly independent and operate according to the rules of ethics are not in the leading positions. In that case, secondary media outlets will be pushed out of the margin.
Ishkhanyan describes Armenia’s political and news media reality this way: “Mainly, with some exceptions, it seems they’re all searching for not ways out but ways in.” That is, they’re thinking about increasing their sources of material interest and not about shaping public opinion and offering solutions.
News media has the role of a persuader, explainer, and guide. To what extent has this role changed in Armenia in the last 25 years?
News media shapes the way of thinking. And in my opinion, the majority of people are victims of journalism. Generally, a paltry percentage of people in the world perceive the newsfeed critically; that is, they don’t accept everything offered to them like melted butter. But for various political, religious, and public organizations, those few individuals are generally not important.
What’s important for them is to influence the masses. And from this perspective, governments that are authoritarian or authoritarian-prone understand that very well, trying to tame media outlets and keep them in the palm of their hand. Often that’s an effective method.
I remember, during the Soviet years many of my acquaintances and friends believed all the news (even when they evoked laughter), saying if it’s written in the newspaper or said on television, it must be true.
Of course, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, Armenia’s media outlets became much more diverse. I think, the best period was 1990–1994, when especially print papers were astonishingly interesting, since young journalists and analysts who wrote unconstrained had appeared.
There was more enthusiasm than commissioned pieces then.
Later, the situation changed. New political forces, different financial bodies and pyramids (oligarchs, as they say today) tried to have media outlets under their influence. Some media outlets adapted to this situation, also new ones were born, which were already completely controlled.
It seems it’s the opposite today: there are commissioned pieces, [but] no desire to change anything.
Speaking about media outlets, I’m compelled to say things that are well known. Broadcast media today are more constrained and not free; they constantly find themselves under pressure by inspection bodies. And the Public TV [of Armenia] continues to remain propaganda of the ruling authorities.
I’m sure that what is said from the screen continues to influence the public.
Of course, political parties are prohibited by law from owning TV companies, but as we see, all more or less influential political parties have their TV channels.
Officially, all political parties insist they’re not the TV channels’ owners. Don’t you think that the airwaves are property of public importance and concealing them is a violation of people’s right to be informed?
Ministers and parliamentarians too, by law, don’t have the right to engage in business activity, but everyone knows with what ways they register their property. And then, with an innocent look on their face, they say they have no businesses.
Everyone knows which TV company belongs to which political party. Though this is a violation of the law, at the same time, it has a “positive” impact, since depending on party interests, those channels ensure a certain amount of diversity on air.
Do you think so?
Of course the political parties, by and large, don’t differ from each other, but in any case they compete. Let me put it this way: it’s a competition to search for “ways in” when with “inflammatory” programs they try to get the ruling authorities to understand something and to get something in return.
I once said that Armenia’s political forces are searching not for ways out of, but ways in to the situation.
When the media outlet serves a political force, the public role disappears. But we’d be sorely mistaken if we said there’s no freedom in online media. Of course, it’s not a level of freedom that would allow a media outlet to flourish (I don’t want to say, survive) due to professionalism.
Armenia’s small market doesn’t permit print and online media to live off of advertising, since business circles work under the ruling authorities’ direction.
It’s known which media outlets are under the influence of which political or financial pyramid. In addition, also known is which pyramids finance media outlets only for the reason not to write articles against them or come to a compromise not to publish those articles.
It would be good if independent journalistic investigations were done on this topic.
The Panama Papers were published recently, and one official in Armenia resigned. But, by and large, journalistic investigations go unanswered. What gets in the way?
Our media outlets, being polarized within the framework of political parties, publish numerous reports on different officials. In civilized countries, any report like this would become a scandal, which would be followed by a string of resignations.
I remember, years ago, they filmed the Czech prime minister’s house and a question arose: where did he get all this money to buy such a luxury home? As soon as that question arose, the prime minister immediately resigned.
As for the resignation of the Compulsory Enforcement Service (DAHK) chief tied to the Panama scandal, I’m convinced that that wasn’t his own, independent decision, but the president’s instruction. If it turns out from higher-ups that the Panama accounts are the DAHK chief’s secret accounts (which is unlikely), he’ll be penalized. But it’s more likely that a short while later, he’ll get a new, perhaps even higher position, proving that a “polished stone doesn’t stay on the ground.”
Here [in Armenia], on one hand, they write freely, but on the other hand, what is written has no public influence. Of course, officials don’t like it when they appear in a scandalous newsfeed, but it’s a pity that the result of those investigations is null. After all, public opinion in Armenia is not influential.
I think, the media’s problem is the lack of not freedom but thought. I mean, in media outlets, swearing and flattery are more than critical thinking. Moreover, we’re unable to accept criticism and respond to it in a civilized fashion. Any criticism is perceived by the other as an order from their opponents, and the series of swearing begins. Tumanyan had written about this, referring to the newspapers of early last century:
“And the throng of ours that was educated on that press has taught to judge surprisingly lightly and superficially, and easily condemned, it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, swearing, shove into dirt, or raise, throw out to pasture whoever it may be. It doesn’t like at all to argue or justify its objections, doesn’t know how to have respect for its opponent, and doesn’t bother itself to understand the essence of the work.
“Ending my remarks, let me say moreover, those papers don’t bother to have at least a bearable language, and one of the largest reasons of the distortion and manipulation of the Armenian language is itself — the Armenian paper.”
This refers not only to political forces, but also scientific and cultural workers. Perhaps this is the main reason that the faces who say something new are so few in these sectors in Armenia. It’s easier to repeat the views of the “prominent” figures, defend theses, and accommodate.
Our language, it seems, has become more Soviet than it was in the Soviet years. They talk a lot but say nothing.
Many journalists and especially TV hosts spread false Armenian, which differs even from the Soviet-developed false language. The language of today is more nomenclatural and provincial than it was in the past.
For example: “In connection to that question I can say that the question is in that today we’re confronted with serious challenges and we have to look at that question from different sides, yeah? We also place importance on, yeah, why not, also the public’s participation, so we can correctly analyze and draw important conclusions regarding…”
These are the remarks of both many politicians and often also the media.
Sometimes ridiculous things also happen. The sports commentator, for example, says, it’s not yet evening for Ronaldo. Or, the goalie made a save, there’s the whistle, and so on.
On one hand, a provincial, fake-translated and false language is being spread; on the other hand, street language is being promoted through various soap operas and humor programs. In my opinion, a perversion of the language is taking place, which is being spread from the media to the public — and the opposite.
The right to be happy is a human right. Let me ask a somewhat odd question: why doesn’t this happiness find a place in everyday life, remaining either as a longing for struggle or a distant dream?
We don’t have a national ideology to live happily and morally in everyday life; instead, we have an ideology to exist and be martyred.
We have to try to get rid of the “Freedom or death” idea and move on to the “Freedom and only freedom” idea. I think, the clerical mentality passed down from centuries gets in our way a lot, the martyrdom to die for the cross and be holy.
That is, we have to think about living happily. In Armenia, it’s a shame to be well, to be happy; it’s fashionable to tearfully say, who’s doing well now, we’re just getting by, and so on. Of course, I understand the socioeconomic situation of many, the widespread injustice, but people who say this are not only the poor. I’m in favor of the Tumanyan principle of “There’s no shortage of parties for he who parties.”
Recently, the Pope gave “The Pleasure of Love” sermon, where he said that love and bodily pleasure are gifts from God. That is, he was talking about life. It seems our church has a completely different position.
The Catholic Church got strength to transform, getting into a competition with the Protestant movement. And illumination followed reformation.
In any area (both media and religion), competition is very important. The Armenian Apostolic Church for centuries operated without reviews and remained dogmatic, since all the protestant movement were pressured. Most importantly, the review would be that the Armenian republic would become truly a secular country.
But it’s like that now.
Now the connections between the state and church are defined by a special law. Monopolies are given to the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has entered various state institutions: the schools, the army, and so on. And as it was in the Middle Ages, now too it preaches obedience and martyrdom.
Remember Raffi: “They weakened the heart of the people, snatched its courage, killed all its vital powers, and in the name of Christian humility, Christian patience, taught it to b a slave.”
See how our agriculture minister instead of renovating the canals and building anti-hail nets, blesses the land with the priests, so that there is a good harvest. Hearing this news, one gets the impression that you’re hearing a Granny Gulnaz fairytale.
After the April war, pathetic texts recalling theology particularly increased. Is it salvation in that case when it’s hard to find the right accents to impart information?
It’s understandable that during wartime there’s an issue of raising the spirit. But excessive pathos stretches people’s nerves. In any case, I rarely heard honest remarks where there was both concern and a call not to despair.
Can the war change the attitude toward current problems? In any case, some media outlets put forward quite pointed questions.
In the initial days of the war it seemed that much has changed, and not only in the media, but also the political field.
But I think, to hope that the ruling authorities of their own will will change something, we can’t. The wave of enthusiasm that rose during the days of the war, the public had to direct toward the demand for changes. It’s unfortunate that this hope isn’t justified. See what happened during the Hrazdan mayoral elections or on April 22 what violence police exhibited against demonstrators. Did anything change?
The rulers again returned to their way of working and living.
In Armenia, various organizations very sharply criticize the ruling authorities. And created is a picture that we have an amazing public and bad ruling authorities, though the April war showed that the public can truly work miracles.
I want to remind [you] that ruling authorities are good never and nowhere. They are either bearable or unbearable. Here [in Armenia], perhaps they are unbearable authorities. And they will be bearable only when the public is strong.
For example, if we’re talking about corruption, let’s ask ourselves a question: does our society have a widespread negative attitude toward corruption?
As long as society’s values haven’t changed, the nature of the ruling authorities also won’t change. More accurately, as long as society is weak, the ruling authorities will be “strong”.
Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan