The media in Armenia suffers from the same legacy as in much of the post-communist world. Although the Internet has shaken things up in the past few years, media independence is still in the making.
Media In Armenia: Fast Connections, Slow Change
As with most of the post-Soviet world, the Armenian press did not have much to go on in terms of a real journalistic tradition after the USSR collapsed. There may have been a lot of publications in the Armenian world-within the country and in the organized diaspora outside of it-but as far as the new Republic of Armenia was concerned, its journalists and broadcasters were coming out of decades of censorship when independence came in 1991. That legacy can be felt to this day, as numerous media outlets clearly toe the line of national policy, while others go to the other extreme of spreading scandals. Very few have the courage, the resources, and the professionalism to carry out objective and meaningful reporting.
The Internet has been a major factor in shaking things up recently. In just a handful of years, an online explosion has provided Armenia with a whole new medium of expression, one that has the capacity, among other things, of being much less immediately accountable to the powers that be.
Arsen Kharatyan, a journalist at Voice of America’s Armenian service, based in Washington, DC, explains the fallout: “We can register significant progress within the last four to five years. There are at least two dozen websites which produce news on a daily basis from Armenia. he number of the Internet users in the country has also grown during the last three years, which I believe can be explained by a more competitive Internet market, which ultimately lowered the prices for Internet and became available to average citizens of the country.”
According to Kharatyan, Armenia is one of the largest Facebook-using countries in the world per capita, and YouTube and other social media sources are gaining users on a daily basis. Also, although Kharatyan says there have been elements of manipulation of Internet-based news sites by the current administration, “the overall situation on this front is more positive and gives hope for sustainable change for the future of free speech in the country.”
The infrastructure has been put in place, even if the government’s hand is not entirely out of the picture. According to Artur Papyan, media expert, blogger, and president of the Armenian branch of the Media Diversity Institute: “the media in Armenia are undergoing a strange period of transformation these days. We have free media, led by online media outlets and newspapers and broadcast media, which have been allowed to enjoy a degree of freedom in this period of presidential campaigns,” -the elections for the nation’s highest oice are due in mid-February-“A greater concern, of course, is the fact, that the Armenian media have no idea what to do with their freedom. Lack of filtration of useful content from junk, limitless sensationalism coupled with insufficient professionalism have left the audience wondering, should they believe in anything the media are saying or not.”
The classic dichotomy of quantity and quality does not escape the Internet. his question has become more pressing as the Internet becomes increasingly popular as a source of news and information in Armenia. Although television, through terrestrial antennae, remains the most widespread medium, online news is catching up. That trend is cited in Papyan’s blog, alongside a recent study that places the Internet penetration rate in Armenia at just a little bit more than the global average, with around a third of households reporting home Internet access. What‘s more, according to yet another survey, online news sources are perceived as more trustworthy than television, radio, or newspapers.
All of the above factors place quite a responsibility on websites for those who do care to take it on. Speaking from my own experience, Armenian society does not yet fully value independence or objectivity in its perceptions of journalism as much as it conceives of media outlets as tools for political forces. The classic model of newspapers as ‘party organs’ is still very much extant in Armenia. However, having a print-run of just a few thousand, mostly confined to the capital, Yerevan, with weekends off, is as good as it gets for even the most successful newspapers in the country. Formal party papers aside, each newspaper, TV station, and website is not associated with an ideology or segment of society, but rather with an individual or a group, invariably bearing a political agenda. As a result, hearsay remains a common, sometimes viable source of information in a country of around three million. The culture of freedom of expression, and of civic consciousness in that regard, does not seem to have grown as a result of the harnessed potential of the Internet-at least not yet.
Kharatyan adds: “I believe that [more media freedom] was a decision by the current administration and not an institutional progress. TV stations, from which the majority of the population receives information, can still be controlled by the president’s voice and, if needed, unofficial censorship can be imposed again. That’s why I argue that the so-called progress in freedom of speech in Armenia is a cosmetic one, it is not a result of an organic development but rather a good will by the executive.”
The contrast is a sharp one. An independent TV station, for example, that had been controversially banned for almost a decade found a new voice not only online, but also in preparing news bulletins for a pro- government broadcaster. At the same time, another opposition channel has been targeted in recent years, as have some journalists, with legal claims such as tax avoidance or defamation. Still, harassing or jailing of media professionals is not widespread in Armenia, especially compared to Turkey or Azerbaijan next door.
The jury is still out. It remains to be seen whether or not there is enough of a push to encourage and sustain a more democratic media environment in Armenia. Both the authorities as well as civil society in the country have the responsibility to contribute to that process. New media, meanwhile, serves as a valuable tool.