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Western Press Review: The Media's Role, From The 10 EU Accession Countries To Nagorno-Karabakh And Iraq

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A review of analysis and commentary in the press today finds several items on the emergence of independent media, from the 10 EU accession states to the first nongovernmental newspaper in Nagorno-Karabakh. Also at issue today is the continuing struggle between the foundering Armenian government and the even weaker opposition; the Mideast vision of Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, as he visits Washington this week; and Russia's policy of fostering "controlled instability" in the South Caucasus.


"The power of images to bolster or undermine public support in wartime has been widely noted at least since Vietnam," writes Jim Hoagland in "The Washington Post." "And the images coming out of Iraq are an increasingly important factor as confusion grows about U.S. intentions on returning sovereignty to Iraqis and on mounting sieges in Fallujah and Najaf."

Recent footage of Japanese, American, and Italian hostages held by unidentified militants in Iraq, as well as the portrayal of the deaths and subsequent mutilation of four private U.S. security contractors near Al-Fallujah, have served to paint a picture of a chaotic and lawless postwar Iraq.

Hoagland says in several mainstream European publications, Iraq's insurgents "are portrayed not as the Baathist killers or jihadist fanatics described at U.S. military briefings in Baghdad and Washington, but as authentic revolutionaries inspired by a new form of Arab nationalism being born in Iraq." Hoagland says he does not think this portrayal is accurate, "[but] it will increasingly be accepted abroad as true if Washington's intentions remain cloaked in confusion."

He points out that even the same images of an incident can be viewed and explained in vastly different terms. And he says U.S. officials "cannot afford to take for granted that their actions or intentions will always be able or allowed to speak for themselves."


Media in the new EU member states have come a long way since having to parrot the views of the politburo, says Adrian Langan of the Bill O'Herlihy Communications Group.

Across the accession countries joining the EU on 1 May, there is a well-developed industry providing varied sources for television, radio, and newspapers. And Langan says this is "a remarkable achievement given that they had to literally build an independent media from scratch after the downfall of the old regimes in 1989-90."

Throughout the Soviet era, the media was "completely controlled by the state and was a tool to announce continual 'triumphs' in economic and social development, while not reporting on any opposition or 'mistakes,'" he says. And it was telling that when martial law was declared in Poland in 1981 to crack down on the Solidarity movement, graffiti appeared on walls proclaiming: "The TV lies."

While new media have emerged to take the place of state-run sources, press outlets "have had and continue to have a major cultural task in rebuilding the faith of people that they can be trusted as independent commentators."

Langan goes on to cite the results of a Eurobarometer study gauging the level of trust people in the 10 EU accession nations have in the print and broadcast media. Radio was found to be the most trusted source of information in the new member states, with 66 percent of those polled saying they tend to believe the radio as opposed to the 64 percent that believe televised sources. The printed press earns the trust of 56 percent of respondents.

"Highlighting the success of the media in the new members, trust in the media is now similar to the existing members of the European Union," Langan says.


Ashot Beglarian of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting writes from Nagorno-Karabakh on the breakaway enclave's first independent publication, the twice-monthly Russian-Armenian newspaper "Demo."

The idea behind "Demo's" creation was "to create a newspaper that is not beholden to the authorities or any opposition movement, but is a voice for the public at large," Beglarian says. He points out that founding an independent newspaper "is a very delicate project in a society which emerged from a devastating conflict 10 years ago. Until now there has only been one main newspaper, the government publication 'Azat Artsakh.'"

He says the emergence of "Demo" "will undoubtedly create controversy." He says the first issue "touched on sensitive issues such as the resignation of Karabakh Deputy Prime Minister Yury Gazarian and a property dispute over a collective farm in the town of Stepanakert.”

But Beglarian says the paper has also "set itself the goal of building bridges across the cease-fire line with Azerbaijan." It will cover events in the Caucasus as a whole, and hopes to fill the "information gap" that persists in the region, according to its editor in chief, Gegam Bagdasarian.

And so far, Beglarian says, readers are responding positively, calling the paper "lively" and "relevant" to the socio-political life of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The paper is available online at:


On the occasion of the visit of Qatar's Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to Washington, Rob Sobhani of Caspian Energy Consulting and Georgetown University says U.S. officials should take note of the Qatari leader's vision for the Middle East.

Sheikh Hamad "firmly believes that in order for the Arab/Muslim world to protect its rich culture and prevent Islam from being hijacked by extremists, a major investment in and commitment to education is essential," Sobhani writes. While literacy rates in the region are high, "spending on development of institutions of higher learning that produce skilled professionals has not been a priority in many parts of the Arab world."

"Sheikh Hamad's objective is for Qatar to take a leading role [by] dedicating a significant portion of its GDP to education reform." With strong educational institutions, "Arabs can preserve their core religious, historical and cultural values while simultaneously stimulating economic progress and political reform."

The Qatari sheikh "sincerely believes that if democracy is to take root in the Arab world, a long-term investment in the unfettered education of the people of the region must be the starting point."

The creation of the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera was part of Sheikh Hamad's plan to foster openness and transparency with the creation of a "free press zone" in the Arab world. And Sobhani says, "As the most-watched satellite TV station in the Arab world, the United States might be wise to cooperate with instead of working against Al-Jazeera. One area of cooperation could be to provide information on issues concerning good governance so as to expose the corruption of the ruling elites within the Arab/Muslim world."

Sobhani says the regional vision of Qatar's "dynamic" Sheikh Hamad also "deserves Washington's attention."


An analysis by Alexander Iskandarian of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan calls recent struggles between the government and the political opposition in Armenia a "battle of the weak." As in most post-Soviet states, the Armenian leadership under President Robert Kocharian is "determined by a kind of social compact between a variety of elite groups," creating "a system of political-economic groupings."

Iskandarian writes: "Ordinary people play little part in Armenian politics, except during elections -- but even then the authorities find ways of manipulating the vote. As a result, it becomes virtually impossible for power to shift outside the existing political establishment. This creates tensions which can only be relieved through external pressure on the authorities, in other words from the streets. Those groups which are not part of the system of power, or have been expelled from it, have no incentive to wait for the next round of elections."

On the night of 12-13 April, opposition activists and protesters took to the streets outside the parliament building and were aggressively dispersed by police, injuring dozens.

But Iskandarian says the Armenian opposition is also disjointed, and its various factions seem only to agree that the current regime must go. He says both the opposition and the government share common weaknesses. Both are "marked by decentralization, incompetence at a strategic level, a tendency to overestimate its own strength and, last but not least, an inability and lack of will to engage in dialogue and compromise."

Meanwhile, he says, "the political system as a whole is losing yet more legitimacy."

For the foreseeable future, Iskandarian says Armenia "faces the prospect of a long stalemate between a weak opposition and weak government, where few people are interested in who emerges as victor."


Senior fellow Vladimir Socor of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says two competing visions are vying for influence in the South Caucasus. One vision sees the region as eventually integrating into the Euro-Atlantic security apparatus and European economic systems. This move "would ensure the sovereignty and modernization of the region's countries," and "is closely linked with internal evolution toward better institutional performance, constitutional government and rule of law."

"The other model," Socor says, "[is] Russia's." Moscow seeks to re-establish dominance over the South Caucasus through its military presence, by manipulating regional ethnic conflicts and controlling energy supplies, as well as taking over the region's insolvent industries, supporting local pro-Moscow political forces, and fostering the activities of Russia's government-connected shadow businesses in the region.

This policy aims to promote "controlled instability" and thrives on the "insecurity and weakness" of regional states, eventually drawing them "into a Russian-led political, military and economic bloc" over which Moscow would exercise dominant influence.

In contrast, Socor says, the Western vision for regional stabilization in the Caucasus "requires settlement of conflicts on terms that would ensure the independence, security and consolidation of states, democratic decentralization, and full opportunities for regional economic development."

Ultimately, Russia's "integration model" for the Caucasus "aims to isolate the South Caucasus from the West. If successful, it would require the U.S., NATO and EU to deal primarily with Moscow -- rather than with the South Caucasus states themselves -- on key issues of Caspian energy transit to the West and strategic access to operational theaters in Eurasia."