“Redefining American Democracy” Winter School

Ambassador and PAO speak with featured speaker, William Volke.
Ambassador and PAO speak with featured speaker, William Volke.

Media freedom is one of the cornerstones of liberty. Without freedom of the press, countries simply cannot achieve their full economic and democratic potential.  Indeed, freedom of media, and its corollary, the freedom of expression, underlie many other freedoms essential to democracy: the freedoms of conscience, of assembly, of religion, and of choosing one’s government.

Put simply, in the words of former Lithuanian President Adamkus:  “No free press, no free people.”

We know that democracies cannot be built overnight.  And in the U.S., we are still working on our democracy, and we struggle with some of the same issues you will be discussing today. But with national elections coming in 2012 and 2013, Armenia’s citizens know that it is essential to be able to hear and read voices that share – and challenge – their points of view, so that they can make the informed decisions that every democracy depends upon. Armenia’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press.

It also charges the Human Rights Defender with protecting the rights of Armenia’s citizens and organizations.  Mr. Ombudsman, we welcome this topical and important forum. And we look forward to the real and tangible results that we hope it will help produce. We look forward to hearing the Working Group’s recommendations to amend the TV and Radio Law, and hope that they will be fully and openly debated in parliament and by the public, and will lead to a stronger law that can be implemented before the upcoming elections.

We also welcome a discussion on the new civil statutes on libel and defamation.  Decriminalization of libel was an important step forward, but  implementation of the new law must not eliminate alternative voices and other perspectives through excessive fines.  Judges should aply the statues in accordance with international standards.

As we look forward to this discussion, I thought it would be useful to share one of my favorite quotations.  Over 200 years ago, that great American, Thomas Jefferson said:  “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Think about that:  “Newspapers without a government.”  A radical notion that crystallizes how important freedom of the press is to any democracy.  In sum, media needs to be responsible, but government needs to create the environment for responsible media to do its job.

Thank you, Mr. Andreasian, for bringing us together to discuss this issue, that is so critical to Armenia’s democratic development.