Thursday, 16 August

A Reporter’s Dilemma: What to Publish in Times of War?

When Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan boasted that Artsakh was doing a fine job repelling an Azerbaijani offensive along the Line of Contact with weaponry dating from the 1980s, many were in an uproar and took to the social media to criticize the president for failing to adequately provide the military with modern weapons of war.

Yesterday marked World Freedom of Press Day.

These two events, when taken together, raises some interesting and problematic issues.

Had Sargsyan not confessed this fact, who would have known what the truth was? Certainly not the citizens of Armenia, or even the local press for that matter.

Let’s, for the moment, put aside the fact that most people in Armenia have a deep mistrust of the current government and its pronunciations on a whole host of domestic matters, from elections to the economy.

So why did many jump on this ‘slip of the tongue’ by Sargsyan? It just goes to show how selective some can be regarding the ‘believability’ factor of the government and their leaders.

The four-day war presented a host of challenges for local reporters – accessibility to the frontlines being at the top.

Most news outlets in Armenia just don’t have the resources – staff, finances, etc. – to station permanent correspondents along the Line of Contact. Other than official communiques, there was a news blackout from the war zone that lasted from several hours to a day or more until a handful of Yerevan-based journalists made it to Artsakh.

Once there, these journalists, like war correspondents the world over, had to use their connections, official and non-official, to get to the news unfolding.

This is a delicate balancing act indeed, rife with pitfalls. What compromises journalists must make to curry favor with local officials in terms of accessibility is something only the journalists themselves know. Are they reporting in full or have they been told to refrain from conveying certain news in return for accessibility?

The degree to which reporters are willing to compromise is also something they only know.

Thus, I was somewhat surprised when a Yerevan reporter who had travelled back and forth to Artsakh, sending reports from the war zone and in-studio, confessed that he had encountered the gnawing predicament of what to report, and when, given that such disclosures might prevent him from gaining access to the frontlines in the future.

Again, it’s a decision that only the individual reporter can make after much soul searching.

Reporters in such situations, however, must realize that they are the eyes and ears of the audience they are writing for.

Breaking news cannot be filed away for a later, more convenient, publication date. Information, however inconvenient, is a vital resource for a citizenry that demands to be informed. Such unfiltered information remains a cornerstone for any democracy, otherwise citizens are forced to base their views and decisions solely on official sources.

Alternate sources of credible information are all the more vital in times of war. Governments will report what they see fit. It’s up to the fourth estate to fill in the gaps.

Reporters, at least those who take their jobs seriously and are aware of the vital role they play in the social contract between governments and citizens, are also tasked with pushing the bounds when it comes to information accessibility.

When reporters start exercising self-censorship, they do themselves and the public a huge disservice. It’s a slippery slope leading to conformity and appeasement.

Being a journalist in Armenia can be a thankless and financially unrewarding profession.

On the occasion of World Press freedom Day, I thank all those principled journalists in Armenia who persevere despite the odds and understand the challenges they face.

They may be few in number, but when it comes to informing the public with ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ they do an outstanding job.

I wish them all continued success.

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Comments (1)
1. Garen Melikian00:02 - 13 May, 2016
Excellent article and a very important subject for discussion. I would like to join my voice to yours in praising principled journalists in Armenia (however few or many they may be). We the public certainly want to know the TRUTH and have a vested interest in the process in which the truth unfolds. It helps create and sustain normalcy in our societal behavior. As we all know, truth, is ultimately a multi-layered and multi-faceted entity. Social, cultural, moral, historical and political factors (in short: any given society's maturity) decide how we as the public deal with the elements of truth(s). There is a strong correlation between the level of journalism and public awareness to societal issues (in fact between almost all institutions for that matter). Perhaps most Americans had not heard of Daniel Pearl, let alone follow his outstanding articles and columns, prior to his beheading by a gang of extremists connected to al-Qaeda (or so its thought). However, a solid spectrum of interested public did follow his investigative journalism and as a result came closer to the truth. Joe Sacco is another example with his reporting of the first Intifada against the Israeli rule in Gaza. Peter Arnett with his reporting during the Vietnam War as well as Iraq War (Episode 1) yet another. There are literally thousands of principled journalists throughout the world who have and continue to bring public's attention to various levels of awareness on host of issues. In some cases at least, as in the examples above, these journalists were able to shift public opinion to the root causes of conflict and thereby offering what was closer to the truth than the respective governments would have us believe. I suppose same could be said in the case of "slip of tongue" by President Serzh Sargsyan. I for one do not believe that this was a mere slip of tongue, further, it was not for domestic consumption--at least not the way it was embraced by the opposition groups, press or the Armenian public. It was in all likelihood for the international audience, that the Armenian side will fight with whatever armament it has at its disposal because its cause is just. It was also for the Armenian public to show its resentment to the Russians, something the Armenian government felt it was unable to do directly (whatever the impeding reasons may have been). The linkage between armament from the 1980's and corruption was something that the president and his advisers had not envisaged would be the topic of public discussion and outrage. I certainly am not an expert on armament or defense issues but, a cursory review of the United States defense arsenal demonstrates ample armament from the '70s, '80s and '90s. The TRUTH is that journalists in Armenia have been unable to corroborate this narrative, let alone how much land or positions have been lost to the Azerbaijani side as a result of renewed conflict at the beginning of April. Everything is vague and unclear. The official version is that everything is under control yet, the public remains weary since there are no independent mechanisms to substantiate these claims. Please forgive my directness but, this is not a question where the press knows something but won't disclose because it does not want to jeopardize the situation or indirectly aid the enemy, but rather the press does not have a clue. It does not have a clue as to how it ought to put the issues in the right perspective so that we the public will learn something about the process. Questions directed at various officials (defense department as well as the military) have been so unprofessional and void of any real content. It is therefore obvious that these officials would not offer anything of substance in these so-called interviews. So the burden falls upon a minority group of journalists who remain truthful to their profession, convictions and beliefs. This is not the case in Armenia only, but the world over. Even though journalistic traditions and freedom of press is well established in the West, yet the same may be concluded there as well. Once again I would like to salute those fine journalists who help make this world safer through their honest reporting.
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