The Armenian Media in Context: Soviet Heritage, the Politics of Transition, Democracy, and the Rule of Law

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article considers why the media industry has failed to promote democracy in post-Soviet Armenia. It attempts to explain why the media have been consistently unable to bring socially significant information into the public domain, and why they have failed to provide an intellectual space in which politically constructive ideas could take shape through exchange, negotiation, and confrontation. The core of the article gives a critical assessment of the factors that affect media operation in Armenia, such as the expectations of the audience, the reasons for the lack of demand for democratic media, the impact of the Soviet legacy on the normative framework affecting the media industry, the growing control of the political authorities over business activity in general, and a legal culture that marginalizes the rule of law. The analysis throughout is illustrated and underpinned by empirical data collected by the author during a series of research projects in Armenia.

Key words: democracy, forms of dependency, freedom of the press, media consumption, rule of law

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Although many social scientists recognize that democracy, free media, and the rule of law each have a life of their own, and do not necessarily come together as a package, (1) people still assume that the introduction of any one of these elements will strengthen the other two. (2) In the early 1990s, that assumption gave rise to the misleading expectation that if the media could be freed from Communist Party control, and placed under regulations that met international standards, it would become a powerful catalyst of the post-Soviet transition toward democracy. In pursuit of that vision, Western-sponsored programs emphasizing media reform were introduced in many of the new republics that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. The reforms were accompanied by an insistent rhetoric that stressed the importance of a free and independent media. But as time passed it became clear that this was not to be. The goal of an independent media bore little relationship to what was actually happening in Armenia. (3) Instead of taking a lead in promoting democracy, the press in Armenia and other post-Soviet countries quickly became involved in political and economic affairs, unashamedly violated the principles of integrity, and generally interpreted "freedom" as being free from every kind of restraint--including moral restraint. (4)

Why was there such a failure of the media industry to promote reform in the post-Soviet independent states? Why did the industry not bring socially significant information into the public domain? Why did it not provide a climate in which constructive ideas could take shape? Why, well into the second decade after its formation, was it beholden to political and economic interests? And why did the media not succeed in building a working relationship with readers, viewers, and listeners? To answer some of these questions, it is necessary to place the media in social, economic, and political context. This requires examining all of the factors that affect media operation. Factors includes the audience's expectations, the reasons for the lack of demand for democratic media, the impact of the Soviet legacy on the framework of the media, the growing control of the political authorities over business, and a legal culture that marginalizes the rule of law.

This article will examine some of the above issues in relation to the Armenian media. Although Armenia has some unique peculiarities, the general pattern of media-related processes in the country has a strong resemblance to the manner in which the media developed in the other post-Soviet republics.

I will analyze the media's audience in Armenia, examining both the pattern of media use among ordinary people, and the much more intense attention paid to them by the political and economic elite. The findings will give an indication of what is expected of the media in Armenian society, and what is demanded of them. …