Special Issue of Yerevan Press Club Weekly Newsletter – 07/27/2009

SPECIAL ISSUE OF YEREVAN PRESS CLUB WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

JULY 27, 2009

PERSPECTIVE

QUALITY JOURNALISM: VACCINE AGAINST SELF-DESTRUCTION

THE RECENT wave of incredible rumors regarding the reasons for the technical
pause in the broadcasting of Armenian TV channels came to stress once more
the depth of the crises that the information domain of our country found
itself in. If one recalls the earlier panic over the expected destructive
earthquake, the series of vilifying articles on our well-known compatriots
that gains more and more pace and, finally, the unrivaled mayhem that
occurred in media after the tragedy of March 1 last year and that was not
duly assessed, the state of affairs looks quite alarming. What steps are
being taken to respond to these challenges?

UNUSUAL activeness can be witnessed in the media legislation of Armenia.
Incessantly ideas and draft laws appear, and their authors wage loud
promotion campaigns, expressing their concern over the freedom, accuracy,
ethics of the Armenian journalism and endorsing various kinds of limits to
this profession. And while the lawmaking agenda that existed before was
shaped by the international commitments of the country, the present
initiatives are of purely local origin.

The Armenian media do experience quite hard times with regard to following
the written and unwritten ethical norms. But the main reason for that is not
that journalists themselves are viciously evading professional standards. We
have got to this point primarily due to a consistent policy that, along with
the tough legacy of the Soviet times and objective economic hardships,
resulted in the restriction of media independence as an entrepreneurial
activity and simultaneously an essential civil society institute.
Repressions against those who disobey, marginalization of media accompanied
their development throughout the whole post-Soviet period and left hardly
any choice other than becoming an appendix to the power, political,
oligarchic clans or to move into entertainment business.

And people who had been watching indifferently the illusions of free
expression, editorial independence and social responsibility burn out in the
minds of our colleagues, these very people today have taken the way of
teaching the media representatives how to behave. It turns out that the
information terror, imposed on media against political opponents, account
settling and criminal skirmish among those at power are to be fought with by
financial sanction and a legal stipulation of rights and responsibilities of
journalists!

Is it not clear that stricter legal control of ordinary hired implementers
will not stop those who manipulate the press solely for waging PR-campaigns
of different color? Should the demand continue, there will be enough
information kamikaze killers that will neglect the risk of being brought to
court for the well-paid libel, insult, compromising materials. The selective
application of law, traditional for our judicial system, will only clear up
the field from courageous journalists, guided not by order, but by
professional conscience instead, will probably keep the tongues of
opposition media, too. The role of our media in public and political
processes, modest as it is, due to such reforms will be minimized. And of
course they will not become more ethical and respectful of citizens’ rights.
The contrary is more likely.

THIS does not mean at all that the author of this piece advocates legal
impunity for journalists. Every citizen must have a right to protect their
honor and dignity from unconscientious media behavior. The RA legislation in
force does propose certain mechanisms for that. The fact that the victims of
defamation seldom use these mechanisms because of mistrust in courts is
another issue. This statement does not of course refer to the upper
noblehood – the recent judicial practice, in particular, the suit of Levon
Kocharian, the son of the Second President of the country, versus `Haykakan
Zhamanak’ daily is enough to see: these people can be quite effective in
realizing their discontent with media.

The alarm over the present lawmaking fever does not mean that the laws have
nothing to change either. The process of improving our media legislation
must be consistent and constant. But this must occur truly for the sake of
improvement, not for the sake of imitation or retreat as it is the case with
the proposed amendments to the RA Law `On Mass Communication’. Several
months ago their initiator, deputy of the RA National Assembly Viktor
Dallakian invited journalists to discuss his draft. Having heard the
criticism he promised to give up the initiatives yet shortly afterwards he
put it into circulation in a slightly modified version.

This is not the only surprise from the legislators. Along with the complete
negligence of the numerous proposals of journalistic associations, the
specialized parliamentary commission was unusually ardent in supporting a
somewhat queer draft of the Media Law Institute on amendments to the Civil
Code, proposing stronger sanctions of journalists for damaging the honor and
dignity of citizens. And while the initiative of Viktor Dallakian is
relatively harmless, since it cannot have practical application and is only
undesirable conceptually, the proposed changes in the Civil Code constitute
real danger for the freedom of press. Despite the quite critical response to
this draft it reached the table of Venice Commission experts with the speed
of light, and only their strongly negative opinion seems to have cooled the
ardor of the new advocates of `responsible journalism’.

The active lobbying of questionable initiatives occurs against the
background of indifference that their authors have with regard to the
dead-end that the broadcast legislation found itself in, the complete mess
in the legal regulation of advertising. Composing, reading with serious
faces, editing, translating into English of the poor-quality draft laws
takes quite a portion of our statesmen’s working time and quite a portion of
state money, too. To say nothing of the cost of Strasbourg experts stating
the obvious fact – these initiatives are not up to the most basic
international norms. All this could have been avoided through the
rehabilitation of the experience, usual in late 1990s and early 2000s, when
the legislative concepts and initiatives were broadly discussed. This
experience was later abandoned, although the consideration of various
opinions and approaches would allow dismissing the most unacceptable ideas
and to send documents of at least minimal quality to the assessment of
international organizations.

The recent developments prompt the idea that the diverse discussion, the
public checkup of legislative initiatives is now viewed by their authors as
unnecessary obstruction on the way of pushing forward legislative garbage.
When in September last year it was necessary to prevent new broadcast
licensing competitions from being held within days, amendment to the RA Law
`On Television and Radio’ was adopted with no public debate or assessment.
The absurd justification given to that amendment still strikes even the
richest of imagination.

In the case of amendments in the same Law, adopted by the parliament in late
April 2009, another method was used: the Council of Europe partners were
being exhausted for years on end, and the contacts with them were maintained
in maximum confidentiality. As a result, bypassing the obvious solutions and
advancing instead complicated and stillborn mechanisms, the Armenian
legislators responsible for this `process’ drove the CoE experts to utmost
fatigue to get a relatively positive assessment from them.

The same methods could be applied in the case of two drafts that prompted
this note. The involvement of certain NGOs in these imitational process,
gives rise to both suspicions of these NGOs being partial and of financial
support (possibly, expected) to these legislative initiatives, coming from
international donor organizations, since many of them seem to have
completely and hopelessly confused in the do’s and don’ts in the case of
Armenian media.

ALL these short-sighted conformist games with legislation occur in a
situation when Armenian media are facing the real danger of getting serious
viral infections. One of them – the destruction of all moral taboos, ideals,
values, reputations – is spreading particularly fast. Almost everyone speaks
about this and quite often, too, yet the vaccines proposed – to ban, to
restrict, to punish – will hardly stop the epidemic. The unimaginable
rumors, blackbites of those who dared to go against you in a certain way –
these human features are displayed on every level of human communication,
also media. And everyone knows the end and the transformation of all
attempts to violently improve this nature, to purify it from such
`weaknesses’.

In order not to become a hostage to primitive rumors the society must be
able to differentiate between what is true and what is purely exciting. The
rumors from the marketplace do cause a much greater upsurge of adrenalin
than an article in a scientific encyclopedia. But when one needs knowledge
that determines a lot in his life, he would most probably resort to a boring
but a truthful source. Tabloids and paparazzi are prosperous in all
countries with developed media. They are scorned and disapproved of, but
nobody thinks they should be exterminated. The existence of quality,
responsible media with much editorial independence alongside with the
low-profile journalism protects the citizens from ignorance, hypnotical
propaganda, loss of values. It is here and not in the existence of `yellow’
press that we have a problem.

Let us strain our memory and use our fingers to count the number of
newspapers, TV and radio channels that are real alternative to those who
pour dirt at everyone and everything, with an extremely biased
interpretation of life around. Even with a most benevolent attitude towards
our media landscape one hand would quite suffice for this exercise. Until
recently we comforted ourselves saying that the lack of objectivism is
partially compensated by the diversity of our print media, and that people
who regularly follow several newspapers of various directions have a chance
to get a more or less balanced picture of current affairs. Unfortunately,
today the optimism for such arguments keeps decreasing. The strengthening
political, material, social polarization of the society conditions not
differing views on the same facts but rather almost complete negligence of
facts for the sake of preconceived assessments and categorical display of
attitudes.

In this struggle for moral destruction of the opponent – actually,
self-destruction – there can be no winners, the victim here is the spiritual
and intellectual health of the society. The only remedy here is the
formation of a critical mass of media that offer quality information to
their audience to counterbalance the stereotypes, labels adjusted to narrow
interests, far from those of the public. It is very important, too, for the
media not to go far from the important issues of the day, to respond to all
the developments that concern people. Otherwise they are doomed to be
shadowed by aggressive journalism for which the shot by the target selected
or assigned is the main sense and way of existence. It is the alternative
and not the naïve, or which are worse, quite intentional appeals to
exterminate the irresponsible press that can stop this infection from
spreading around.

The fulfillment of plans, cherished by some constructors of social
relations, who hope to use the indignation at the journalistic `license’ to
apply, with public cheers, certain forms of censorship and repression, is
the worst case scenario. The further reform of the media legislation must be
directed not to fight the tabloids but to strengthen quality, professional
journalism.

THE SITUATION that our media found themselves in is close to an emergency.
And in such case it is impossible to do without a concerned involvement of
authorities. Particularly in Armenia, when the most influential information
channel, the television, is almost fully controlled by the state. And when
the powerful television resource is used the way it was in March 2008, to
attain the petty objectives of the day, it is hard to avoid the drop in the
media morals taking place today and causing so much alarm. Why not learn a
lesson from this and not to offer such a professional standard to the
society that would enable pushing the debate on the important issues into a
civilized format? Why not take the risk of giving up thematic and personal
restrictions at least on one or two leading TV channels, to create a truly
free tribune that would disarm the stone and egg throwers from behind the
corner and barricades? For the danger of ultimate loss of media as a
conductor of national interest and ideals is much more dangerous for
responsible power than the refusal from a monopolist control over air.

We would wish to address all political forces, at power and in opposition,
all business people, having at least some regard for public benefit, with an
appeal: do refrain from ordering to discredit opponents and competitors, and
if you have influence over media, use it to stand for principles and not to
destroy personalities. Such moratorium is simply vital to slow down the
rapid degradation of our press.

With every new turn of overcoming the moral taboos the immunity weakens and
the threshold of disgust among the journalistic profession goes down. In
2002 most of Armenian media, whatever the political preferences were,
boycotted `Or’ daily for trespassing the commonly accepted ethical norms.
Nowadays such publications are taken much more calmly, with no collective
revolt displayed. And the longer it takes us to make productive
counteractions, the more complicated the situation will be in future.

Of course, efforts to create competitive alternatives to `yellow’ press, the
moratorium on ordered pieces will not purify the mass communications from
those who love to disseminate and consume gossip, pseudo-compromising
materials, unnecessary details of celebrity private life. There is not point
in attempting to make the human kind sterile, to refuse it a right to have
idle curiosity, other `harmful’ habits and information demands. But let
these demands be met without the involvement and encouragement by the
authorities, political parties and other institutes, called to form educated
and morally healthy society.

DISTANCING, counterbalancing those who are only interested in sensations and
scandals with media who seek to provide quality and accurate information to
the audience is the precondition for the development of modern, civilized
media market. Since late 19th century the media self-regulation came to be
the most effective method for such differentiation. The responsible
journalism defined ethical codes and other mechanisms of voluntarily public
accountability, while the `yellow’ press, as a rule, prefers not to be
restricted by moral commitments. In Armenia the self-regulation system
started to be formed over two years ago, yet to this day a major part of
leading newspapers and broadcasters, claiming to be `quality media’, are not
involved in the process. The conclusions seem to be obvious – the
representatives of both progovernmental and opposition business and
political elite that back them prefer to keep their hands untied and are not
ready to realize the consequences of neglecting professional standards for
media and the society.

…How can one help doubting that the legislative initiatives allegedly
intended to make the journalists more responsible are truly directed to make
our information domain healthier? What other unpleasant transformations
should our journalism go through for us to proceed to competent decisions
and specific actions from verbal expressions of concern and imitated
activeness?

Boris NAVASARDIAN

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Editor of YPC Newsletter – Elina POGHOSBEKIAN
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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS