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Mass Media in Armenia: Power Elite’s Tool to Shape and Control People’s Thoughts

Sociologist Anna Zhamakochyan and the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women NGO filed an appeal in early September with Armenia's Media Ethics Observatory (MEO), a Yerevan Press Club board supervising the activities of mass media in the country, to look into the content of the March 22 2016 episode of ATV TV channel's Semi-Open Windows talk show. The episode was entitled “Dangerous Silence” and featured Yerevan citizen Vladik Martirosyan as the main guest. The man was complaining that his former wife, Taguhi Mansuryan, was not allowing him to see their child and blaming his ex mother-in-law for allegedly setting Mansuryan against him. Months later, on July 8, Martirosyan attacked Mansuryan and her parents with an axe. In an interview for Epress.am, Zhamakochyan spoke about their appeal, the MEO's response to it and the media's role and influence on the society as a whole.

“The media today is all about business and politics; it is dependent on the business and political fields. The question, then, arises: how can media function properly in such conditions and what role can it play in the society?” the sociologist said, adding that Armenian mass media today is largely contributing to the perpetuation of the existing conservative morality and power. Currently, Zhamakochyan insisted, the vast majority of Armenian media companies, particularly broadcasters, are a tool of the ruling elite which are working to simultaneously ensure sufficient audience numbers.

After considering Zhamakochyan's and the Coalition's joint appeal, the supervisory board found that Taguhi Mansuryan's right to privacy had been violated during the course of the Semi-Open Windows episode; besides, the observers noted the one-sidedness of the story, the creators' failure to seek out the Mansuryans' opinions, and the illegal usage of a secretly made recording. 

“The supervisory board did record this facts; however, a number of my questions have gone unanswered,” Zhamakochyan told our reporter. For instance, the sociologist said, she did not receive any clarification regarding the criteria for choosing the guests of the program. 

Typically, Semi-Open Windows invites “guest experts” to give the heroes some advice and offer solutions to their issues. “I had asked the board to look into the requirements for choosing these guests because they often deviate from the professional point of view [they have been invited to express]; besides, it is important [that we find out] what social groups' interests these experts represent. The participation of so-called celebrities is another essential issue. Say, on what basis does a guest actor speak about a legal problem? Is he allowed to express an opinion just because he is a celebrity? What social roles does he have besides being an actor? Anyway, all of the guests, whether they are experts or not, speak from the viewpoint of unequal and conservative morality. I wonder, why do they believe they are entitled to give such unequivocal assessments regarding the private life of specific people, moreover, on such delicate issues?”

Zhamakochyan argued that the talk show, which is supposedly designed to offer solutions to the heroes' issues, only adds fuel to the fire; “We can safely say that almost all the guests of this particular episode, 'Dangerous Silence,' encouraged the behaviour of Taguhi's former husband. None of those present even noticed that the hero was actually stalking his ex-wife; on the contrary, they encouraged and praised him for being a consistent parent. It is also evident that Taguhi's mother, whom Vladik Martirosyan later killed with numerous blows of his axe, was specifically targeted and labelled by everyone in the audience.”

In its response, the media ethics supervisory board only urged ATV TV channel to “be more sensitive” when covering such topics in the future. “I, however, had pointed out to issues that required a more detailed analysis; although, it is hard to imagine that an advisory board could have done more. I also expected them to address my questions as to whether there exist any other public means to bring the creators of the program to justice, but to no avail. Anyhow, we should take into account that this supervisory board has no leverage and is a self-governing body with an advisory function,” Zhamakochyan stated. She stressed that the MEO's ruling could have been effective were there media freedom in Armenian. “I can't imagine ATV reporters being chagrined [by their actions], but I do think it's important to  publicly declare this criticism. Hopefully, they'll take these opinions into consideration when preparing a future similar episode.”

We asked the sociologist to also comment on Iravunk newspaper's recent article under the headline, “For 17 Years This Whore Lived with Two Brothers at the Same Time.” The article told the story of 37-year-old Dilijan resident Gayane Kokhlikyan who had been shot and wounded in the beginning of August by her husband's brother, 45-year-old Vardan Yesayan. The woman spent 12 days in the hospital, and two weeks after the incident, Yesayan was found dead in nearby woods in an apparent suicide. The paper conducted a lengthy interview a relative of the Yesayans who insisted that the one reason for these events was the woman's intimate relationship with her husband's brother. Iravunk's article almost entirely focused on Gayane Kokhlikyan's “immorality” and her “promiscuous behaviour.” Several Armenian media outlets subsequently reprinted the corresponding excerpts from the article.

“How does the so-called media economy work? Media is a tool of those in power and as such it has to ensure specific audience numbers; to do so, media needs 'interesting' scandals. But the main question is: who are these scandals about? As we can see, they mainly focus on the defenseless and vulnerable. Interestingly enough, scandalous article in Western newspapers mainly target famous and powerful people, while in Armenia – on defenseless and vulnerable villagers. Everyone knows that rich and powerful people in Armenia, particularly men, have several wives and families, but no reporter ever asks these women or their families about the suffering they are forced to go through. No one covers these families' tragedy. But [media is] quick to write the story of a small town woman. Neither this article nor the aforementioned TV program solves any social problems; they only ensure audience numbers,” Zhamakochyan said, noting that the media could have covered the same story from a different point of view and not from that of the woman's morality.

“Concerned media could have raised the issue of how and under what conditions the concept of the family changes in Armenia and how the environment either accepts to rejects these changes. We are surrounded by a number of alternative family forms but they are not being highlighted in terms of conditions and reasons [behind their existence]. They might be a consequence of socio-economic structural changes, but media does not take into account such in-depth issues and puts the emphasis on [the woman] being a 'whore.' 

“Approaches to the media are different, but, yes, media does influence and form public opinion. It is, however, not a direct influence but a systemic one; it affects cultural values, shapes and molds social outlooks and attitudes, but worst of all, it leads to the creation and standardization of context-free social perceptions. 

“Mass media has to take actions to overcome its systemic issues. Are the existing Armenian media outlets capable of offering solutions to social problems, if not, how should media be transformed? As a whole, we need to take action to form and develop critical thinking within the society, to ensure that people abstain from ignorant assessments and try to understand the complexity of social life. And finally, we should take measures to combat misogyny and hatred towards those who are different from us and who happen to be vulnerable,” the sociologist concluded.