"This type of attitude on the part of an Armenian media outlet might indeed dismay Armenian-American philanthropists and prevent them from actively investing in Armenia," reads a letter from Jack Berberian, an Armenian-American philanthropist, to the chairman of the Council of Public Television and Radio, Alexan Harutunyan. The source of our fellow Armenian's dismay was a February 15 report by the "investigative team" at Haylur (Public TV's news program) on Junior Achievement of Armenia (JAA), a nonprofit organization. Berberian serves as president of the board of directors of JAA.
Anchorperson Tatevik Baghdasaryan presented the report, entitled Charity as Political Business, with the following introduction:
"The activity of public charity organizations in Armenia is based mainly on donations from Diasporan philanthropists - on their money. And where there is money, there is temptation. The question of whether philanthropists' money always serves charitable purposes is of interest, first of all, to those who don't hesitate to provide portions of their earnings on a regular basis to those in need. Among these people is Armenian-American Jack Berberian, a philanthropist who is well known and widely respected within the community. Haylur 's investigative team has tried to find out how [they are used] and what purposes charitable donations serve?" (For the full text, see: www.armtv.com).
The Haylur "investigative team", a nxious about how Jack Berberian's money was being spent in Armenia, alleged that "the funds raised by the executive director of JAA, Armine Hovhannisian (the wife of former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovhannisian), in America are allotted to her husband's political activity, to collecting signatures in support of Hovhannisian's receiving Armenian citizenship, etc. The important question is whether Jack Berberian, who finances the program, is aware of all this. Does he know that the money he has provided for the education of Armenia's youth is invested in a family business that serves one man's political ambitions? Certainly not, because the Diaspora has made it clear from the very beginning of Armenia's independence that it was important to them that donations reach their target."
In his February 17, 2006 letter to Alexan Harutunyan, Jack Berberian wrote: "I, Jack Berberian, an Armenian-American businessman, was deeply disturbed to learn about the deceitful and distorted report aired by the Haylur news program on February 15 th regarding the 'un-targeted spending of funds I provided' to the organization Junior Achievement of Armenia organization.' As president of the board of directors of JAA, I formally declare that the organization's activity is financed by USAID. I would like to inform you that the organization's financial activity is supervised by USAID, Junior Achievement International, and the organization's board of directors. Furthermore, Junior Achievement of Armenia undergoes annual independent auditing by Corbin & Company, Ltd. Our financial statements are published in the organization's Annual Reports and are placed on the JAA website, both of which are open and transparent to the public. . I strongly urge you to refute the misinformation aired on your program without delay and cease hindering Armenia's progress with such fabricated reports."
It is unclear where the Haylur team obtained their information; their report seems to be based purely on assumptions and makes no mention of specific sources.
"If their purpose was disclosure and not slandering my name, it would have been better if they had obtained the information from the reports published on our website, said JAA's executive director, Armine Hovhannisian. "It's a USAID program. Berberian is the president of the board of directors of our organization, not our funder. I don't think that their aim was an investigation; they simply wanted to soil our reputation. It was done on purpose. This wasn't the first campaign and it won't be the last. We've been living in Armenia for 15 years, we've been known only for doing good, and now within the course of one month we've become thieves, we beat people, we're criminals. Before the elections you'll hear that we're a criminal clan. In my opinion, they are trying to get at Raffi Hovhannisian through me."
On February 20 th Armine Hovhannisian demanded a written refutation from Alexan Harutunyan, chairman of the Council of Public Television, Armen Arzumanyan, executive director of Public Television, Harutiun Harutunyan, director of Haylur, and Armen Gevorgyan, assistant to the President of Armenia.
"None of the information aired during the report corresponds to reality. It is full of fabricated and distorted information from beginning to end. I would like to find out what kind of an "investigative team" it is, that within the current environment of freedom of information has aired so much unverified information without looking at the organization's website, without visiting its office and familiarizing itself with the organization's work personally. I urge Haylur to provide an explanation regarding the deliberate fabrication of facts and data about our organization, as well as to refute the information on the same program and with equal time and to publicly apologize for the misinformation."
Who are the reporters on the Haylur "investigative team"? The fact is, Haylur has no such team. The text of the report was read out by Haylur reporter Arthur Grigoryan. In a telephone conversation with us he insisted that he had just read the text he has been handed and had no information about who had written the piece.
Tatevik Baghdasaryan, the anchorwoman of the program in question, asserted the same thing over the telephone.
In response to our request that he clarify the situation, the executive director of Public Television, Armen Arzumanyan, told us that he had been out of Yerevan that day and suggested that we ask Haylur director Harutun Harutunyan. We were unable to get hold of Harutunyan in his office for two full days. Each time we telephoned, the receptionist asked what the purpose of our call was, told us to wait for a moment, and then eventually said that Harutunyan was out of the office. He was unreachable by cellular phone as well.
A source at Public TV told us that the text of the report had been sent to Haylur from the information service of a state agency.
We were unable to get any clarification from Alexan Harutunyan; according to our information, he was not in Armenia on the day the report was aired.
"There are four different structures overseeing our financial activity. First, USAID; second, the international body of our organization, because we are the Armenian branch of Junior Achievement; third, the board of directors, made up of respected people, such as Jack Berberian, Silva Bezdikian, Joe Kellejian, Steven A. Kradjian, Melik Kumjian and others; fourth, an independent auditing company. They must have known that very well if they looked at our Annual Report. I don't know how I could gotten around these four supervisory structures and concealed funds from them and spent the money on rallies," Armine Hovhannisian said, adding, "We have never had any problem with taxation authorities of Armenia, I don't believe there is anyone else in this country who pays as much tax as I do. I have done everything in accordance with the letter of the law, because I knew this day would come, that one day they would want to get at Raffi and would come and scrutinize my organization."
Haylur also accused JAA of involving teachers in politics, though no teacher was quoted in the report. Teachers and students who received training through Junior Achievement programs and saw the report on TV sent letters to JAA expressing their disappointment with the report and thanking the organization for its work in Armenia.
Armine Hovhannisian is trying to find out why her organization has become a target for Haylur.
"I cannot understand it - are we a part of the campaign unleashed against NGOs that are financed by international organizations? Is it a response to the question Raffi addressed to the president of Armenia? Or is it because the elections are coming up?" she wondered.
Concluding its "investigative report" Haylur announced, "Unfortunately, Junior Achievement of Armenia has adopted a 10-15-year modus operandi that has forced many Diasporan Armenians to reconsider their attitude toward the homeland."
But it is Haylur's dissemination of misinformation that may force a number of Diaspora Armenians to reconsider their attitude toward the homeland.
And if Haylur fails to refute this misinformation, Jack Berberian and Armine Hovhannissian will in all probability attempt to do so in court.
P.S. On February 25 this article was reprinted in the daily newspaper Azg. The same day, during a press conference at the Azdak Club, Alexan Harutunyan, chairman of the Council of Public Television and Radio, addressed the issues it raised.
Asked why Raffi Hovhannisian's family had become a target for the Haylur investigative team, and whether the investigation had not been politically motivated, Harutunyan responded, "Any news has political consequences, and if we are talking about responsibility then we don't have to look far. If you want to, let's put it this way, find the one responsible, I'm responsible, and I'll tell you that the report was indeed the result of an investigation. And you know, I'm an old-school journalist. There used to be a golden rule, if you remember, that if, let's say, you know a hundred things, at first you just say thirty of them. Then you wait for the reaction. Then say another thirty. And again, you wait for the reaction. Then give the rest. So now I am waiting for the reaction. If the reaction is to sue Haylur , then I'm looking forward to it."