Monday, 24 September

It’s The Mass Media That Create Society

Interview with cultural theorist Hrach Bayadyan

Is there freedom of speech in Armenia? And what role do the electronic media play in the realm of the mass media, Public Television in particular?

To some extent there is freedom of speech and to some extent there is not. In many respects the opposition press is freer, but the TV channels are thoroughly controlled… In each particular situation we can evaluate freedom of speech depending on what mass medium we are talking about... Indeed, the extent of freedom of speech may vary in some situations. If we compare Public Television and Public Radio from the standpoint of free expression we will find a clear difference between them – Public Radio is freer in articulating criticism. Especially since Public Radio broadcasts programs from Radio Liberty, which has no constraints and is not controlled by the government. The reason is clear – the extent of the impact made by radio is far smaller.

I remember that when they covered the demonstrations that followed the last presidential elections and the violence applied to the demonstrators, the as yet inexperienced reporters from Radiolur lied to such an extent that I, as a radio listener, felt uncomfortable. It was also ridiculous since their coverage was followed by Radio Liberty reports telling us exactly the opposite. Now they express themselves more freely at Radiolur, though limitations still exist. I do not rule out that in the case of a worsening of the political situation, government control will increase and freedom of speech will diminish.

Ever since A1+ TV was taken off the air the authorities have tried by all means to keep the electronic media - and Public Television, which has the largest audience, above all – under their control. Therefore, freedom of speech at Public TV is in a sorry plight. The Haylur news program is controlled with special punctiliousness and as a result it stands out for its deliberateness in commenting on the events. That deliberateness is manifested in the most diverse ways and is achieved by the most diverse means – from passing over certain things in silence and misrepresenting them to disinformation, from skilful editing to ridiculing. Sarcasm combined with obvious hints at various political and public figures and other tricks, for example, takes on certain interpretative, guiding and, eventually, evaluative significance for the audience.

Freedom of expression on the Public Television is also confined because of its saturation with inexcusable volumes of commercialized and light entertainment programs. Over the years this approach has shaped a “profile” or a picture that is called on to satisfy the demands of various segments of the society.

The only positive consequence of government's efforts to control the electronic mass media was the fact that in order to express themselves freely many mass media outlets have been established on the Internet. Of course, many electronic and print media have their Internet versions as well. Due to the lack of reliable statistical data we may assume that their social significance is negligible, and the main reason for this is limited access to the Internet. Perhaps paradoxically, journalists' lack of competence and awareness might be a factor limiting freedom of expression and getting reliable information. The simplisticness of journalists' language and evaluations may be reaching an extreme. A journal may have its “style” and stereotypes, and journalists might have “eyeglasses” that enable them to see some things and not to see others, in order to meet their deadlines.

Let's not forget, however, that the influence of the mass media depends not only on what and how they report, but also on how the audience perceives all that. In other words, one should not overestimate the perceiver's ingenuousness – that he or she allegedly perceives what is being reported. Nowadays, a great role is attached in media theories and studies to the factor of perception, to the forms of the consumption of information and cultural production. Depending on the audience's perception, education and social affiliation as well as other circumstances, numerous ambiguities might accrue. In this respect one should not overestimate the mass media's capability to shape people's thinking or opinions.

The mass media operate in a complex social context that can add question marks to their messages, introduce uncertainties, ambiguities and misconceptions.

What is the ratio between electronic and print, pro-government, opposition and independent media?

It's one thing when we talk about the pro-government press where the freedom of speech is limited by the authorities or by the factor of authority, and another thing when we talk about the opposition or independent mass media. Here too there are constraining factors. Being in opposition doesn't imply having free speech. Naturally, being outside the government's control renders additional opportunities for freedom, sometimes more, sometimes less. I'm confident that for a journalist of any media outlet that considers itself free or independent there also exist taboo-subjects, conditional to various factors – economic pressure, political sympathy or antipathy, etc… They might not be openly visible but if one wishes to one can discover a newspaper's sympathies and antipathies by, for example, reading the paper over a longer period of time. Sometimes the freedom might be a freedom of cursing out the government or someone else, but not freedom of speech.

If the government doesn't have control at least over the non-governmental segment of the print media, it is because the audience and the possible impact of print media are much smaller. This is the case everywhere; it's just that in Armenia it reaches extreme proportions. Even in developed countries the press with the greatest possible circulation cannot be compared with TV channels. As for the radio stations in Armenia, they are almost completely commercialized or are cultural in nature. Therefore, it doesn't make much sense to discuss the issue of freedom of speech in this case. I have already touched upon the rise in the number of Internet media outlets. It is worth adding that they are published in foreign languages as well and have a larger audience abroad and thus present more diverse and reliable information not only to foreigners but also to the numerous Armenian Diaspora, which might have an impact on the internal political life.

What methods of pressure are presently exerted on journalists to limit freedom of speech?

In the case of electronic mass media, control is exerted vis-à-vis the subjects being covered, the guests who are invited etc… As far as print media is concerned - where media outlets of opposition political parties still exist - government control or pressure might be exercised in a variety of ways. Control can be exercised through bribing a journalist to prevent him or her from writing on a particular subject or conducting an interview with a particular person or to write a particular article on a required subject. Naturally, tougher methods exist – from intimidation to brute force. Various pressures can be exerted not only toward journalists but toward media outlets as well.

As in all segments of society, there are corruptible and opportunistic people among journalists as well. In its turn, the information domain is multi-layered: mass media owners, journalistic elite, “proletariat”, etc… One should not depict journalists as people crowned with a halo of free speech; neither one should forget that freedom of speech is a Western concept with certain forces and interests standing behind it. Its local significance is not always unequivocal, since it is shaped in a much larger domain than the national framework of government-society, government-opposition interrelationships.

The control over freedom of expression is exercised mostly by administrative and economic means. Disobedient radio and TV companies can be deprived of broadcasting frequencies. And the other way around—the National Commission on Television and Radio might compensate for loyalty by turning a blind eye to violations of the law by a given media outlet (for example, violations related to the volumes and content of ads).

Since the owners of TV companies usually have other businesses as well (the majority of private TV channels are apparently not profitable), these companies are controlled through controlling the owners' other businesses. In other words, there are many ways of controlling.

Some people think that, in essence, in our country mass media do not shape public opinion. If this is true then why do the authorities and the political forces react so painfully to the criticism sounded by the mass media?

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote an article on the subject, the very title of which maintains: “Public Opinion Doesn't Exist.” One of his statements can be paraphrased like this: what we consider public opinion is something that a government or some other power forms and disseminates in order to justify its subsequent actions. In Armenia it's even more customary to talk and act on behalf of the people. In any case, it's clear from what has been said that what is called public opinion cannot exist without the mass media. It is evident that without the help of the mass media thousands of people that make up the society do not have a chance first to have an opinion about something that they have not witnessed, and then to have a unified opinion.

Moreover, society itself is inconceivable as such without mass media. Therefore, it is only with the help of mass media that we are able to have an opinion about something, which doesn't mean, as we have already said, that we would necessarily have the opinion that the media outlet would want us to have. In this sense, public opinion, of course, exists so far as the mass media try to shape certain assessments and expectations of certain realities, and in this respect the authorities have sufficient grounds for worry.

The other side of the question is that our society remains patriarchal, where the word of the head of the family or the state must be indisputable, where dissent or even worse, criticism is perceived as an encroachment upon his authority.

What is the connection between mass media and society?

As we have said, it is impossible to separate society and the mass media from each other. Society doesn't exist without mass media. Power and politics don't exist without mass media and vice versa. Just imagine a daily newspaper that doesn't report on a government meeting of the previous day, that doesn't cover the sessions of the National Assembly (let's put aside professional media). On the other hand the presentation and interpretation of political decisions, the behavior of state and political figures is also adapted to the perspectives that the mass media realm offers. The significance and future development of events might depend on how they are presented on television.

Even the most irreconcilable opposition newspaper, to some extent, contributes to the legitimization of the government by its criticism. Do you remember how the opposition newspapers were scoffing at the members of the newly elected National Assembly by calling them “local criminal authorities”, and so on? But those who had scoffed are taking page-long interviews with them today and thus contributing to their legitimization. Politics and the political field to a greater extent are also shaped with the help of the mass media and we cannot separate them from each other. It is the journalists who teach these “local criminal authorities” to speak on political subjects. In general, the languages of the political and journalistic fields are interconnected. If you have noticed, some dialectal and jargon nuances have appeared in the spoken language of some even most experienced and opposition journalists. One wonders from where. I'm half-joking, of course, but I consider it to be a manifestation of the solidarity of the political and journalistic fields.

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