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Hrant Gadarigian

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.