THE CENSORSHIP OF WAR

THE CENSORSHIP OF WAR

The editor-in-chief of Media Initiatives Center Gegham Vardanyan talked with Regional Post about the role of media during the recent war and how the censorship and restrictions shaped the overall image and our perception of the Second Artsakh War.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan    Photo : Areg Balayan  


Was Armenian media ready to work in this extreme situation? 

On the first day of the war, at 12 o’clock in the morning, there were neither helmets nor bulletproof vests left. I can’t say if the local journalists were ready for it, but the desire was certainly there.
What similar experience did we have before the September 27th? I guess, the April War in 2016. On a practical level, we had learnt that there’d be a need for vests and helmets, as well as for minimal security and first aid training. Also, after 2016, we started talking about censorship: what should or shouldn’t be covered. We started initiating various public discussions and trainings, but every international journalist can tell you that these kinds of events should be initiated at least every two years and not just once or twice in a time. 

Artur Gharayan, DOP


The Media Initiatives Center had purchased a certain number of vests and helmets to be provided to the journalists. Fortunately, they weren’t needed in the recent years. I guess, the first time they were used was in July, during the escalation in Tavush region. During the revolution of 2018, some of the journalists were also wearing those vests while covering the street clashes. Even though uncomfortable for such cases, those military press vests were what we had. 

Aram Kirakosyan, photographer

 

So, did Armenian journalists manage to provide high level coverage from the perspective of capabilities?

It was October 1st I guess when I first traveled to Stepanakert. I saw a lot of journalists there who were mostly from the local agencies. We can say that our news outlets succeeded in cooperating, transforming their graphics and ensuring the newsflow, but we need to understand that it differed from the actual war journalism and I guess some of the journalists weren't prepared for that part. Of course, there were opposite situations as well. 


I witnessed a huge desire from their part to cover these stories and have their share in them and for that purpose some of the journalists would go to the most dangerous spots even without protective clothes which, even though appreciable, was extremely risky. 

Group of Armenian journalists in Areg Balayan’s instant photo

 

But how many of these stories got actually publicized? 

That’s the question. We dealt with the martial law and restrictions and of course with a highly dangerous situation. A journalist working in Artsakh faced travel limitations and due to the restrictions the stories started to repeat themselves. In the beginning, there were three main directions: Martakert, Martuni, and Hadrut. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs usually organized visits for the journalists, but obviously at some point the situation changed.

Samra restaurant's Hovik Asmarian, photographer Areg Balayan, head of Artsakh state radio Ani Minasyan, with David Sayadyan

 

Journalists tried to adjust, in some cases they would mutiny but we were at war and at the end of the day they had to follow the rules. For example, journalists couldn’t illustrate the hospitals and funerals in their photos and videos, etc. Here we had both official censorship and self-censorship. It was also hard for the local journalists to stay neutral and keep their emotions down. 

Documentary filmmaker Angela Frangyan

 

Ani Minasyan

 

Rubina Markosyan and members of Evnreport.com

 

At the end of the day, did censorship help or vice versa?

I think, if in a martial law the government imposes official censorship, the journalists are to follow these rules as they are, but the rules must be very distinct. If the government declares a martial law, it must be done properly and must be all-inclusive. If its purpose is to manage the information flow, then it implies the way it was done in Azerbaijan when they shot down social media. Well, people there used VPN but still, it’s the approach I’m talking about.

Journalist Karevn Avetisyan from Sputnik Armenia

 

Besides the filming and traveling limitations, the journalists didn’t really face the martial law drastically. They had their own censorship; not to cause any harm. In 2016, we had a controlled media field, but this year it was different. This time we had politicized media and politicized media conflicts. Even though these media outlets tried to work with the government, despite the martial law the gossip and misinformation still slipped through. Some journalists and media outlets got fined, but there was no total control over information. 

Were we lied to all the way?

Obviously, in a situation of war, both sides can exaggerate the news and lie about the scale of the situation. It is both right and helpful as long as it isn’t a complete lie. I always called the official information a propaganda and every time I presented Artsrun Hovhannisyan [representative of the Ministry of Defense, the main figure to present the news from the front – ed.] to someone from abroad I would call him the “propaganda guy”. Official propaganda is helpful as long as you realize that it is propaganda. Here arises the question of media literacy. Had the majority of people installed that filter and every time listening to Artsrun Hovhannisyan at 10 pm had they realized he’s just doing his work, at least this huge disappointment we are witnessing today would be less. 

A local with PanArmenian Photo’s Karapet Sahakyan

 

But was it right to concentrate the information flow on one or two people? 

People feel cheated but I don’t think the faces of propaganda should be blamed the most. They were the ones to convey the messages that were defined long before. They were trying not to spread panic, but at the same time there were too many exaggerations. All these hashtags and slogans! I understand, those people were doing their jobs and I cannot say that their actions harmed the frontline or the people in Armenia during the war, but they definitely disappointed them immensely. 

Photographer Karen Mirzoyan and filmmaker Andranik Babayan


They tried to keep the spirit high, which was the right thing to do, however there were too many exaggerations and even though they weren’t obvious lies, at some point it was too much. Currently, we are facing the consequences of it all: a crisis of trust towards authorities and a crisis of facts. The fall was too harsh for the people, which makes it much harder to convey messages in real time. The communication is disturbed. 

Shelled car of filmmakers Aram Shahbazyan and Artur Gharayan

 

Is it possible to stay an objective journalist and not to become a tool of propaganda when one covers a war in his own country?

Yes, it's possible and it is the right thing to do. A journalist should be able to do the right assessment based on the topic and context. For example, one of our fellow journalists had footage of a huge number of dead bodies of Armenian soldiers but he chose not to publish them. I think it was the right decision at that time. But, at the same time, I believe that one of the reasons for our failure is the fact that for many years we hadn’t criticized our army. Army was always a taboo topic in Armenia, hence the consequences. During this war as well, the army was one of the key self-censorship topics for our journalists. 

Angela Frangyan

 

If we compare the war of 2016 and the recent war, how did the Armenian media field evolve during this time? 

In 2016, there were no restrictions, there wasn’t enough time for that, but propaganda was still active. You might remember the myths about the hunter shooting a UIV with a gun and other such stories. The social media processes have developed since then and the political groups have become more organized. In 2016, Serzh Sargsyan had an opposition, but in 2020 the opposition was more active and decisive. But we have to admit that in 2016, the opposition didn’t have this amount of media resources: TV channels, websites, social media influencers, etc. During the autumn war, we had several major topics, such as the terrorist and mercenaries, recognition of Artsakh, and so on. In this situation, Armenia desperately needed international coverage. In the beginning, they even let the journalists to Artsakh without a proper visa and created all the possible conditions for them. We needed that coverage much more than Azerbaijan did. 

Photographers Erik Grigoryan (center) and Narek Aleksanyan (right)

 

Can the current government eventually recover the trust in terms of information transparency?

We need time and exact moves from the government. The officials need to reaffirm their reputation. At this moment, if some unknown person writes on Facebook that we’ve lost 5 villages in Tavush and 27 news outlets share it, the refutation of the head of the region or the Ministry of the Defense won’t make any difference for the people. This is the result of our euphoria. When we heard someone talking on TV, we didn’t think that it was propaganda. Usually, in extreme situations, the media literacy is aggravated, but this situation was directly connected to our emotions and it was hard to stay unbiased.

Angela Frangyan