Remarks at OSI Conference on Human Rights in Armenia

Thank you Lusig, Larissa, and thanks to OSI for hosting this conference and inviting me here to participate.

Today, I thought that I would focus my remarks on one of the most basic rights in any democracy – freedom of the press.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “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.” Fortunately we don´t have to choose, and subsequent generations all over the world have also believed that freedom of the press is a critical right to be preserved and protected.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This principle is also enshrined in the Armenian Constitution: Chapter 2, Article 27 provides a specific guarantee of media freedom, as well as a provision for an independent Public Radio and Television.

It is not unusual in a transition country that the government would not fully respect either freedom of speech, or the freedom of the press in practice. The United States was not an exception. And neither is Armenia.

In the early days of our country, before we were even a nation, the thirteen colonies struggled with this issue. In 1735, Peter Zenger, a New York publisher, was accused of libel by a powerful politician. The jury found Zenger innocent, ruling that the truth cannot be libel.

A half-century later, as Congress debated the set of amendments to our Constitution known as the Bill of Rights, one of our Constitution´s principal drafters, Gouverneur Morris, wrote, “The trial of [Peter] Zenger was the germ of American freedom, the morning star of that liberty…”

And as Armenia continues the hard work of transitioning from one system to another, there remain a number of challenges to freedom of the press here. The most frightening are the deplorable incidents of violence and an environment that appears to encourage, rather than deter, acts of intimidation toward journalists. That sends a chilling message to others of what can happen if a journalist or a media organization steps out of line. The disturbing number of assaults against journalists in recent years raises real concerns about the state of media freedom in Armenia.

Freedom of the press faces other challenges also: whether it is the intrusive tax audit of Gala TV or the case of A1+, which was taken off the air in 2002. Despite ten applications for a broadcast license since, a European Court of Human Rights ruling, and consistent calls over a number of years from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and the United States, it remains off the air.

As a result of all this, most media outlets and journalists practice self-censorship, and they openly admit this.

I would note Armenia´s print media includes a healthy diversity of opinion. However, the low circulation means that many Armenians are left out of this debate, and most newspapers only provide one point of view – not the balanced reporting that educates the electorate and enables it to make the kind of informed decisions every democracy depends on.

As you know, most Armenians rely on electronic media for news and information – and here, the picture is even less encouraging.

Considering that there are, I believe, 42 television outlets throughout Armenia, there is a notable lack of diversity in opinion and perspective on the airwaves — especially among television stations that have a nationwide reach.

Major broadcast media outlets generally express pro-government views and avoid reporting that is critical of the government. This is perhaps the most serious challenge to freedom of the press, because it means that the media has been co-opted by a particular point of view, and the public, as a result, does not receive any other point of view.

The recent amendment to the Law on Television and Radio, which imposes a moratorium on new broadcast licenses, further reduces the prospects for greater media pluralism.

Digitalization of the broadcast spectrum is a legitimate goal, but it is being handled in a questionable manner. Usually the first step is to get input from the media sector and civil society, and then publish a clear plan of how a country intends to accomplish the switch to digital broadcasting.

In Armenia, a law was passed on short notice late at night and in all three readings, and with no public debate. The law was passed in such haste that the drafters forgot to include radio in its provisions. And the timing of the law — right before a scheduled open tender – only raises more questions.

Armenia has plenty of time — until 2015 — to accomplish the switch to digital broadcasting without falling behind the voluntary European standards; there is no reason to rush this process, especially when it has the effect of suppressing the media pluralism that Armenia so urgently needs.

While the Government maintains that the television spectrum is full, because of TV frequencies taken by broadcasters in neighboring countries, there is an opportunity to license a number of new, localized, low power broadcasters. The potential for cross-border interference would be limited, and the broadcast of differing viewpoints and perspectives could be encouraged.

Further, to cultivate diversity of opinion as Armenia moves to digital broadcasting, the authorities could establish a two-tier system similar to the process used in the United States, that would allow for local, low-powered stations to continue broadcasting on analog.

Much of the pressure on media in Armenia stems from an instinctive human dislike that all of us have of being criticized, and especially being criticized in public. This is universal – and certainly exists in the U.S. But if we clamp down on critical voices, there is no way for citizens to hold their government officials accountable, and we severely limit our ideas and our options in dealing with the problems that we face.

This is why I have focused today on media freedom. Media freedom is not incidental to a robust democracy, it is one of the cornerstones of liberty. In the U.S., our free press is the very bedrock of our success as a nation. This is true even when — often ESPECIALLY when — what the media reports is upsetting to U.S. Government officials.

President John F. Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Indeed, freedom of expression can be considered the basis for many of the other freedoms that the citizens of mature democracies enjoy throughout the world; freedoms that you will be discussing today and tomorrow at this conference: freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the freedom to choose one’s government.

While I have focused my remarks today on the need for greater diversity and freedom in the media, I would also note that journalists and media outlets have an obligation to exercise their freedom responsibly.

As we’ve discussed, the expression of diverse and critical opinion is fundamental to the functioning of a free media. But when journalists distort the truth — something we see all too often — whether deliberately or through carelessness, they undermine the public trust and damage the credibility of their organization and the media as an institution.

The United States will continue to advocate for expanding media freedom all over the world, including in Armenia.

At the same time, we will continue to encourage and support the higher standards of journalism and increased professionalism, which enables the Armenian media to play its critical role in the development of Armenian democracy.

Because the good news it that while there are challenges in this area, there are also solutions. We respectfully encourage the Government and the media to review its policies and its performance in this area, and in concert with media NGOs, make the kind of changes that will encourage an environment conducive to a lively, free and responsible press.

The benefits to Armenia are not just consistency with international principles of democracy as positive as that would be. There are real and tangible economic benefits to a free press as well. Independent investigative journalists, for example, are any government’s most effective tool in any serious fight against corruption, which the Armenian Government has established as a priority.

Lithuania, a country of similar size to Armenia with a common history in the Soviet Union, has earned a consistently high score for independent media in Freedom House´s Nations in Transit survey in recent years. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lithuania´s economic performance during that same period has been among the best in the EU-27.

I believe that democracy, success in the fight against corruption, and opportunities for economic growth go hand-in-hand with a free, independent, and responsible press.

As Lithuania´s President, Valdas Adamkus, put it, very simply, “No free press, no free people.”

Thank you. I look forward to a challenging and informative discussion.