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Sara Petrosyan

The Time Has Come to Smash the Shackles of the Mind

Those who fled the Glavlit censors of the Soviet era, and those who have waged a ceaseless struggle with the “impunity” of the post-Soviet media, failed to observe that over the years they have become their own glavlit. 

They also failed to note how the national media, with several thousand readers, dropped to print runs that were even less than community papers. And this occurred within the span of ten years.

Without notice, topics in demand disappeared from the pages of newspapers. Afterwards, the main targets of “hot” topics were conveniently forgotten. In the past 4-5 years, the circulation of papers that had been printed in the several thousand dropped so low that today any paper with a print run of 1,500 is considered a success. This development, in turn, led to a drop in staffs, and unstable and minimal wages has led to an exodus of experienced reporters. 

Editorials, which reflect the paper’s ideology and the attitude of publishers on daily developments, were put off for more opportune occasions. An impression was created that the “editor’s column” was not appropriate for the needs of today’s press and was forced out due to “modernization”. The reality was that news outlets adopted a passive stance, the spirit of rebellion dropped, and to conceal this fact it was first necessary to shun editorials. 

“Many have lost the habit of thinking, so much so that they are afraid to think. Heaven forbid that they think correctly and face danger.” These words by the prominent Armenian writer Gostan Zarian, penned in the 1960s, are just as appropriate today regarding every reporter and newspaper.

Dependence on this or that political or economic power has greatly increased the vulnerability of news outlets and reporters. The inner censor has spoken in the reporter, and the editor, in turn, has rounded out any sharp corners that remained. The eye of the reader has not missed the puzzling bareness that dominates news outlets. They have not accepted or tolerated those who mislead. However, print runs are no longer of concern to editors. Even the idea of having a free press is no longer primary. Now, they merely strive to maintain the name of a periodical, since the daily tightening economic noose threatens their very existence.

From the outset, the regime was able to “pacify” the ten or so television stations and it was concerned about the thousand fold circulation of newspapers, even though the distribution circle had grown smaller and the papers were mostly read in the capital. Self-censorship achieved more than even those wishing to put a lock on sharp tongued reporters could even have imagined. It was only a matter of time for a segment of reporters to get used to the demands of the changing times.

The types of newspaper articles most in demand (analysis, commentary, oratory), were replaced with the most sordid and low brow news. Individuals with no professional background infiltrated the media field and news reporting became a farce. Professionalism was no longer a prerequisite for getting established in the media. The conception of hard hitting news has changed. It is no longer concerned with exposing the blemishes of daily life, but rather with portraying bloody accident scenes and naked bodies, or disseminating the ignorant comments of a self-proclaimed sex pathologist. Daily life, with all its tragedy and repugnance, has infiltrated the media. Reporters have turned into mere recorders. Levels of professionalism have dropped so much that even transcribing a taped conversation is regarded as top notch journalism. 

The media has become fully monitored. Topics and their manner of presentation are no longer the product of the creative thought or imagination of reporters and even editors. “What and how to write”, has been determined for many years and for most papers from one center. This mode of oversight has become quite attractive for top officials who, in order to eternally hold on to their office, thought of their own way to strengthen their amiable ties with news outlets. Each of them became unregistered shareholders in the papers and with open thanks admitted that; “Yes, silence is worth money.

”It shouldn’t have surprised us when a well-read reporter would be allocated a calculated number of lines in a paper with limited pages, and on the other hand, that same paper would freely and without regret, devoted space to long-winded interviews praising various officials. In these instances, editors probably couldn’t even imagine how such methods demeaned the media and lessened its impact.

“What do you need? How can I help?” – Only a few reporters could withstand such temptations of offering favors and services uttered by small and large officials and by oligarchs controlling the economic sector. Changes to the value system happened so quickly that not betraying professional values and circumventing ethics became the norm. The face of reporting is being corrupted daily. Professional courtesy is a worn out concept. The long held media “commandments” – do not engage in plagiarism, lying, discrediting colleagues, etc, have become a part of today’s media make-up.All this did not satisfy them and, like the mistress of the “Golden Fish” fable, they wanted to own their own news outlets; in the same way as owning a chain of supermarkets or beauty salons. The appearance of hundreds of websites in just the past two years underscores the fact that the aim of today’s “media magnates” is not to become influential in the news arena, but rather to neutralize influential news outlets.  Maintaining news sites at little cost allows them to publish “rubbish” and thus divert public attention from vital issues of political, social and economic significance. News sites, working along the lines of TV serials, must implement the directives of their owners when the time comes. To disparage their target, these sites throw out some piece of “news” which then gets picked up by scores of other sites specifically created for this purpose. The rest of the time, these news sites are busy filling their pages with automobile accidents and listing suicide cases.  Readers with weak constitutions are treated to stories about what the “stars” are up to. 

The Various Manifestations of Censorship

The serious economic situation is the primary, but not only, reason for self-censorship. In the past decade, there have been scores of incidents where reporters have been hindered from carrying out their professional duties. These incidents have gone unpunished. Assaults against the press particularly increase during election cycles, because even the rabble drawn into the electoral process knows that the press in Armenia, unlike other countries, is not included in the list of professions enjoying special defense measures. Why is it that law enforcement can display such intolerance regarding those who hinder the police in their duties, but they can’t do the same when it comes to reporters? This vulnerability has forced reporters to make a choice between remaining a constant target and going the self-censorship route. The latter option has emerged victorious, and reporters have voluntarily limited their freedom of thought and action, all the while waiting for the best time to free themselves from the shackles of the mind.

Closed Topics

This is a problem, conditioned by   social-political realities, that periodically appears before reporters. One decade ago, the army was a topic off limits to reporters because that the way officials at the time pictured it to be – you either wrote well about it or nothing at all. Over the years it has been understood that by concealing acts of violence within the ranks it is impossible to cure the army, Solutions to problems arise when they are discussed. Today, stories about the church and the clergy are equally not tolerated. To publicly express opinions about the inadequacies of the religious elite and church servants is regarded as a sin against God. Articles and open discussions about homosexuals, freedom of religion and conscience and gender equality are open to derision. Stereotypical thought even constrains those with relatively liberal mindsets.

Even the Soviet Union guaranteed the participation of women in the government via quotas. Now, reporters shy away from raising the issue. Is ignorance the cause? Perhaps, for aren’t United Nations member states obliged to carry out those policies agreed upon in different committees, even documents regarding the equality of the sexes? The public has remained the same - small-minded – and doesn’t want to hear about these topics that are alien to its mentality and traditional perceptions.

 If some of the restrictions noted for the above topics have, over time, followed one another, there is one theme that has remained impossible to crack –the generalitet (clique of generals). They have been off-limits and inviolable ever since they came upon the scene. Each one of them is like an uncrowned king in the country’s provinces and has reconstituted the reign of Genghis Khan in their domains. However, their conduct is not a subject for examination in the press; especially for regional reporters. Repercussions will be quick in coming. The most typical example of the last few months was a tragic settling of scores in the town of Goris. The local news outlets not only didn’t have the courage to cover the incident or comment on it, but also failed to cover the lively discussions taking place in the social internet sites. This is the way it has been during the entire ten year tenure of the former Provincial Governor. 

The Provincial Reporter Must Also Resist Local Customs

If the most inviolable thing for the national media is the “clique of generals” (generalitet), then the provincial press is extremely cautious when it comes to choosing topics and, based on the fact that what it has to say primarily must refer to the province, it is possible to picture the content of such papers. 

“Newspapers are like the toastmaster’s speech; false, superfluous and exaggerated.” This description of the Soviet press by the prominent writer Gostan Zarian fully characterizes the provincial press in Armenia today. The writer, who from time to time worked for the Soviet media, advises us to search for the reason inside the human person, and not in the system.

The true situation of the provincial media speaks to the fact that it has remained, in content and form, in the Soviet period. A former regional paper has been striving for fifteen years to maintain a status that in reality doesn’t exist. Today’s urban community government has no desire to become a caretaker of a news outlet that will give it nothing but problems. However, the more local authorities strive to cut the umbilical cord, the more editors embrace them. The formula for the vitality of the regional media has no connection to media marketing. The press continues on merely at the whim of the Provincial Governor. Thus, motivated out of feeling of gratefulness, provincial reporters sometimes become more “Catholic than the Pope.” Why, then, should we be surprised that regional issues are not covered by local news outlets.

The media investigative piece published one year ago by Hetq proved once again that regional problems are not being covered in the regional press. The existence of the print media in the provinces is not made apparent by what it publishes, but rather when the government drafts a list regarding the state subsidizes to be allocated to the regional media. Only by reading this list can one find out that there are 5-6 newspapers and other periodical published in each province.

This year I conducted a training course in Syunik, Lori and Gegharkunik for regional reporters. Not one reporter from any of the three provinces wanted to have their article submitted to any local paper, even though they dealt with local issues. One of the reasons was that local papers were not ready to publish material on regional problems. All pieces critical of local authorities were rejected.

In addition to all these publishing difficulties faced by reporters living in the provinces, they must also gain experience in resisting the local environment. It demands great courage to go against the stereotypical mentality in a small country like Armenia and especially in small communities where relations are formed with local perceptions and rules. Reporters collaborating with the national media seek to break free of this environment; however they stand out like sore thumbs. First and foremost, the press guild doesn’t tolerate them.

Numerous are the instances when, for example, half the village has surrounded a reporter’s house for criticizing the work of the community mayor, waiting for an explanation as to why the reporter “shamed” the village head. They would then proceed to teach the reporter a lesson in manners. 

In one mayor’s office, there was a discussion of community problems with regional reporters in attendance. One “famous” reporter got even more upset than the mayor when a colleague criticized the community head. He started to scold his colleagues for expressing their displeasure with the work of the mayor. Amazingly, the very same public is not intolerant when it comes to a pedophile living amongst them, but does not tolerate any reporter that publicizes his criminal lifestyle.

The fourth estate is experiencing a similar crisis like the other three branches of government. And it is not merely a crisis of thought. This situation is a result of a drive to accumulate as much power and material resources as possible. It is possible to overcome if the regime quickly comprehends that to maintain the stability of the country it must end this Sodom and Gomorrah and each the opportunity to fulfill his/her calling in life. 

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