Travels with Auntie: The living dead
It was quite an intimidating thought. Training 11 senior journalists from Armenia and Ukraine in the delicate art of mentorship. I was dreading communication problems – I don’t speak any Armenian, nor Russian, nor Ukrainian. But human understanding is pretty universal and working through an interpreter was slow but not as painful as I thought. The other big worry was boredom -journos have a low threshold – could I keep them engaged 8
hrs a day for 5 days. Fortunately, they all played the game!
This project is all about supporting and training journalists (1200 of them across 17 countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe) in the wake of the Arab Spring and 20 odd years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democracy www.facebook.com/medianeighbourhood Two regions – two different stages of development. That is what makes it really interesting and is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Freedom is a big word – and what I wanted to find out was what kind of constraints my journalists are working under.
I was lucky enough to have a very concrete example. On Saturday, I was taken to a pro-free speech rally by eminent Ukrainian journalist and talk show host, Andriy Koulikov – a kind of charming and considered Jeremy Paxman. The rally was calling for a Russian-owned independent TV station TBi to be reinstated on the social cable package. The channel has been increasingly squeezed out by operators – widely thought to be at the behest of the government. And at the rally, the protestors were calling for people to vote for the oppositon. Organisers also wanted to test out how much support they would get from other TV networks – who would cover it? Well,there were very few cameras there.
This gets to the heart of the matter: ownership and lack of financial independence. Because the vast majority of media outlets, in both Armenia and Ukraine, are owned by hugely rich businessmen – corruptionaires as they call them here – or the government, most outlets are serving highly vested interests. Who wants to jeopardise a lucrative government contract? The net outcome of this is that the opposition has become “The political living dead” as one of my journalists put it, and the dead don’t speak.
A happy little vicious circle is drawn with self censorship at its core. The structure of influence is Government – Owner – Channel Director – Editor – Journalist, the journalist is 5 rungs down and makes assumptions about what the upper rungs will and will not want to hear. Do this wrong, and you can lose your status, your livelihood, and perhaps even your freedom. How many of us would not be cautious in the same circumstances? And if you know your boss is not going to broadcast/publish it – why do it?
This only highlights the importance of the internet – which all agreed IS free. But it does not get the audience. Television is the medium which wields the biggest clout.
“In Ukraine, journalism is not the fourth estate,” says Andriy Koulikov. Interestingly though, a recent opinion poll put the mass media in the top five institutions that citizens trust, the government and church came first and second. But when asked where journalists came on that scale, they plummeted down to the 131st position. Journalists are typically badly paid, and often have to work a second job. Their positions are insecure and don’t have the kudos of other professions.
In Armenia, the media is dominated by women, not because we have struck a grand blow for emancipation but because salaries mean a man can’t support his family, and there is a general gender imbalance in the country due to wars and the diaspora.
So, my colleagues face a daunting array of problems as they go about their daily work. Hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm and professionalism though. No jaded hacks, but clever, hardworking people trying to make a difference.