The circle of self-censorship
Team Leader, Media Neighbourhood for BBC Media Action
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.
I am the team leader on a project called Media Neighbourhood, funded by the EU and run by a BBC Media Action-led consortium. It’s 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 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of democracy.
In involves two regions at two different stages of development and what I wanted to find out was what kind of constraints the journalists in Ukraine and Armenia are working under.
I witnessed a very concrete example. I was taken to a pro free speech rally by eminent Ukrainian journalist and talk show host Andriy Koulikov. 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.
At the rally, the protestors were also calling for people to vote for the opposition. 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 some 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 get next to no coverage, becoming “the political living dead” as one of the journalists I worked with put it.
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 five 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 or publish it, why do it?
This only highlights the importance of the internet in such circumstances, which everyone here 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. 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. It hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm and professionalism. These are no jaded hacks, but clever, hardworking people trying to make a difference.