Vicken Cheterian, a lecturer in history at the University of Geneva and an expert on international relations, is convinced that now, first of all, it is necessary to get out of the internal political crisis and soberly assess our potential.
Including clearly realizing that journalism and propaganda are completely different professions.
You were a journalist in the 1990s and saw how an independent media field is trying to take shape in Armenia. Looking from the distance of years now, why didn’t it work out?
The history of the Armenian press is an interesting material that has not been written.
When I came to Yerevan from Beirut in 1992 as a journalist (although I had come to Soviet Armenia, this time I had come to work after independence), I saw that some professional press had already sprouted in Armenia. For example, “Azg” newspaper, to which I was reporting, was trying to be a professional press, according to the definitions of the Western press. There were other newspapers that tried to establish themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But all that was shattered in the mid-1990s, and a professional press was not formed in Armenia, which could do a major job of informing the public about the realities and offering a platform for dialogue and debate.
Why didn’t it happen? Of course, there are profound reasons: the political upheavals in Armenia, the tradition of Soviet “journalism,” when journalism simply did not exist, but there was a completely different profession, which was called propaganda.
In general, in post-Soviet relations, journalists were in fact ready for propaganda. Inside, they were ready for the one who paid to tell them what to talk about. This is the opposite of journalism because the journalist himself must take interesting materials for his audience from reality, develop and present them.
No such press was formed in Armenia. And it does not exist until today. Even after the huge slap in the face in 2020, 80% of the Armenian media is propaganda. That is, one time they attack a person, another time they attack the opponents of that person.
Of course, this has nothing to do with journalism and the idea of state development.
The state has always been the main propagandist. But now the propaganda centers in Armenia are in other places, in the hands of the forces that have involuntarily become opposition. When you look at our media field, doesn’t it look like a battlefield?
It is clear that especially the press spread on the Internet and social media pages fulfills orders for very narrow money and political purposes. I do not follow the Armenian press very much, because it is not interesting, to be honest, there is nothing to follow, one throws mud and dirt on the other.
There are no ideas, arguments and statements of thoughts, even if it is clear why they attack each other. Today, when most of society knows how to read and write, only false and dirty information is not enough.
They can only affect very narrow circles by dumping dirt, but in order to influence wider circles, arguments and ideas must be developed. Even if you have a point of view, you must be able to develop a chain of thoughts, otherwise, the point of view will not be influential.
In my opinion, that information struggle is not interesting.
In your opinion, will this defeat be an opportunity to reconsider, as well as to get rid of the past mistakes – in the economy, in relations with the Diaspora, in professional issues?
The war has shown that the Diaspora also had a part in the defeat of Armenia and must take on the responsibility of realizing it. All Armenian political and social structures were not ready for this confrontation and showed their weaknesses.
There are two things you can do now. Either the relations between Armenia and the Diaspora will remain in the pitiful state they are in now, or every individual and every structure should first of all try to realize and describe all our shortcomings through some group work.
Let’s understand, describe, then think about how to edit them, what to keep and what to give up.
After all, our scientific and intellectual resources are very limited, we do not have the luxury of wasting our resources. It is important to understand in what direction we should invest the narrow means we have.
For example, now thousands of people in Armenia insist that drones should be produced. And it is necessary to study from different sides what to do, to produce drones or, say, to develop diplomacy. Understand which approach is wiser, more accessible, and more desirable.
I see signs of doing this work. People who were completely indifferent during the last 10-15 years are now raising those issues.
There are questions in Armenia and the Diaspora. I cannot say that they are enough to find solutions and create a new leadership of the future, which can lead Armenia and the Diaspora in a new direction.
It is important that there are hints of those serious questions. But they sound outside the mainstream media platforms.
For years, the media focused on the not very competent, even the fake expert community. From technologies, economists, to philosophical thought (nationalist-abstract).
In my impression, starting from the 2000s, the discussion platforms of Armenia and also the Diaspora, the field where one could ask questions and develop a dialogue, began to narrow. And in recent years that troubling situation was unbearable, I saw that it was simply impossible to raise my concerns on Armenian platforms.
Today we must reconsider how to create new platforms and networks so that Armenia can have the best specialists suitable for its needs, even if those specialists do not exist either in Armenia or in the Diaspora. We can meet the demand for experts through our friends, allies, partners.
Let’s at least bring the potential in Armenia and the Diaspora side by side. I hope there will be progress in that direction, but now it is still in the form of very preliminary steps.
Do you think there are instructions to intensify the feeling of hopelessness through the media and social networks?
That much is clear, but at the same time, immediately after the defeat, a difficult psychological situation was created, and those who gave those instructions tried to develop their plans upon the suppressed mass psychological reality.
There is a political crisis in Armenia, in which both the authorities and the opposition which were formed after 2018 are found.
The authorities are the main ones who must offer a solution to this crisis. Instead, they are entering a game in which the public does not demand a change of government.
It does not matter whether there is a demand for early elections or not, it is important that Armenia entered the war in 2020 and lost, so the authorities that received a mandate also lost. Regardless of everything, an answer must be given and the people must be given an explanation as to who is responsible.
It is not enough just to say formally that they are responsible and continue life as it was. It is necessary to take measures for Armenia to get out of the internal political crisis.
There are times when society is much more developed and realistic than its leaders. It was like that when the Soviet Union collapsed, it was like that in 2018 as well. Is it the same now?
I think it is not only the problem of the political leadership. Today’s crisis showed that besides that, there are institutional problems in Armenia. Armenia is a parliamentary republic, and the parties, which do not exist today, have a big role. There is a ruling faction and there is a faction operating outside the authorities. And neither one nor the other is established as an institutional structure.
State and political structures in Armenia are underdeveloped, and this raises many questions.
We are going to adopt several laws that will toughen the penalties for insult, slander, restrict media sources and so on. In your opinion, does any government, after all, dream of having such repressive mechanisms at hand?
The government is always repressive. Today, the modern state is a center of condensation of a huge force, and the condensation of any force is very dangerous. The history of the 20th century has shown that the state itself is a dangerous tool if there are no counterbalances.
In the case of Armenia, the main problem of political development after 2018 is that there was no counterbalance or that counterbalance was outside of the state structures. This was the case in the National Assembly, in the executive bodies and even in the judiciary.
In my opinion, today the authorities are trying to implement what is right from their point of view. But the only correct response to lies and dirty propaganda for the future of Armenia is to create a reliable and professional media field.
And to do it not by censorship, but by showing the people that there is a professional press free of falsifications. That is the only answer. There can be no other answer if we choose the path of development.
The authorities always make the same mistakes everywhere. They think that they are authorities, infinite and eternal.
It is difficult to understand that they have only been temporarily given the mandate to implement decisions, and their repressive and short-sighted steps go against the promises they have made.
They must think long-term. In other words, think not only about the period of their rule but also about the future. And imagine that they will participate in the elections again when there are no more authorities. And then let them ask themselves what kind of Armenia they want to live in and act as an opposition force in.
It is strange that people always think that they will stay young always and forever. Unfortunately, this does not happen.
I really think that after the independence of Armenia there is a need to re-evaluate the experience of the press in order to understand when and how they started moving in the wrong direction. And why three decades later we could not develop a professional press.
For years we didn’t think that the press was important.
It’s probably with that thinking that the oligarchic and state circles started controlling the press.
The controlled press ceases to be a press and turns into propaganda. I am talking about the press.
The people who have a Diaspora scattered all over the world do not have a quality press either in Armenia or in the Diaspora. And it is really painful.
Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan