“We’re not in Norway any more Toto”: A revealing comparison of journalism in the No.1 country for freedom of speech, and the 77th

“We’re not in Norway any more Toto”: A revealing comparison of journalism in the No.1 country for freedom of speech, and the 77th

Vartan Aivazyan, former RA Minister of Environmental Protection

It’s more than simply 76 positions on the list that separate Armenia from Norway.
Against the backdrop of sensational revelations of corruption practices, illicit arms sales and other global investigations of wrongdoing that were being presented to more than 500 international participants of the Global Investigative Journalism conference in Lillehammer, Norway, the local media consonant with the pace of local life was generally as peaceful as dawn.

For the Armenian reporters attending the conference in one of the world’s most expensive countries, there was little in the news that reminded of our own scandals.

The top story in the Norwegian Top Daily newspaper VG, which has a printing run of 320,000 copies and employs a 200-member writing staff, concerned pigs. At the front page of the colorful VG the story was announcing that the pigs in the northern part of Norway were fatter than in the southern part.

“In reality, generally speaking, we don’t have big issues in our country, that’s why the life of a journalist is not that interesting,” says Norwegian journalist Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk who works for the Norsk Telegrambyra news agency. “And the VG story (about pigs) against the background of a slow news flow is really an interesting story.”

“Probably because of high standard of living, people of my country are more interested in news, for instance, about actors and showbiz stars. Voter turnouts in elections are usually not high, with the exception of perhaps 1972 and 1994 elections when there were referendums deciding whether Norway should join the European Union or no. And with the turnout figure of close to 80 percent in either case people voted against joining the EU. And why was that needed? Is it for Brussels to decide as to what should be done in Norway?”
Norway, which is one of the world’s most developed countries, has a monarch, but as Norwegian journalists say King Harald V mainly acts like a ‘red-ribbon cutter’, while the country is governed by the prime minister and Cabinet.

According to Norwegian journalists, there is no opposition as such in Norway, and there can be even no word about hunger strikes, sit-ins and unauthorized rallies – as dominate the daily news at home.
“The main demand and resentment of the opposition is that the current government is slow in spending enormous budget funds,” says Jan-Morten Bjørnbakk.

“Of course there are big investigative stories but you can’t produce scandals every week,” says Bjornbakk. “We have no problems with freedom of speech.”

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ global freedom of speech index for last year, Norway shares the top place with Iceland, while Armenia is only 77th.

“No censorship. We have no reporters jailed,” says Bjørnbakk. “However, at the same time I can say that the press has great influence in my country. In recent years at least five ministers tendered resignations immediately after negative stories about them were published in the media.”

And what were the reasons for the ministers getting sacked? Vote fraud? Shot somebody? Stabbed somebody? Hardly:

One was canned because she rented out a small house and didn’t report the income. Another resigned because she didn’t reveal that she was friends with someone she’d supported for Ombudsman. One was fired because he spent government funds on an expensive piano.

“In 2001 the minister of health, Tore Tønne, did not resign, but committed suicide after a big scandal in Norwegian newspapers. It was revealed that he got 1.5 million Norwegian Kroner (500.000 US$) as a fee from a law firm. The payment was not a bribe, but a consultant fee,” says Bjørnbakk.

While I was still surprised at the resignation stories, journalists from different countries of the world hurried to a grand assembly hall where two winners out of five nominees for Global Shining Light Award for world investigative reporters would be announced.

After a lengthy speech is made, the name of Armenia is given. And to a standing ovation of 500 investigative journalists and to the admiration of other guests Editor of Hetq Online Edik Baghdasaryan was awarded the prestigious prize for his series of articles “"The Minister and the Mining Sector".

During the eight months of investigation Edik Baghdasaryan published a series of articles, informing the public as to how the former environment minister Vardan Ayvazyan, instead of dealing with the environmental challenges facing the country, had been engaged in protection of his own interests.

According to these publications, Ayvazyan had allocated mines (mostly gold and poly- metallic ones) to more than a dozen relatives’ names, thus violating several laws.

“My students always ask me what result our investigations produce,” says Baghdasaryan taking the prize. “In a country like Armenia you should fight a lot to get a solution to any issue and this prize is yet another step in this struggle.”

“Congratulations,” says Norwegian journalist Jan. “And did the minister resign after the publication of these articles?”
“No,” we say. “He committed suicide,” we add ironically.
We are not Norway.

Of course, Vardan Ayvazyan did not attempt to commit suicide. Nor did he tender a letter of resignation.

After Baghdasaryan’s investigation and a number of other scandalous stories with corruption claims against him, some time later former Environment Minister Ayvazyan, although not involved in the new government, did get another high position.

As an elected member of parliament he was appointed head of the National Assembly’s standing committee entrusted with a scope of various activities – taxes, customs dues, industry, energy, tourism, state property and management in a number of other spheres. . .