An interview with Harutyun Harutyunyan, Director of Armenian Public TV’s “Haylur” News Service
Q - During the past few months a number of organizations and various segments of the society expressed complaints about Armenian Public TV (APTV). Why do you think these people are so disenchanted with APTV?
A - I also hear those complaints. If I didn’t work in APTV I might also raise a number of questions. I believe that type of mentality is conditioned on the crisis situation in which these various segments of society come into contact. I can present a few facts here. A number of intellectuals, I won’t mention names, who had actively participated in this revolutionary phase (and I use the word reservedly), were invited by us to the station in order to express their views. They began to justify themselves by stating that since APTV wasn’t covering the rallies they were paying the station a visit to see what it had to say. This was merely a justification on their part. We understand the situation of our intellectuals very well. They go say something one place and the next day they go elsewhere and say something completely different. Of course there are omissions, and we must proceed cautiously, but to heap all the shortcomings of the news sector on APTV doesn’t seem fair to me.
Q - Why do the people complain? It’s because APTV is their station; the taxpayers fund it. The other TV stations are in the same boat because rumor has it that they’re all directed from a single center. Perhaps this is the reason. What do you think? Are all of you centrally supervised?
A - That’s just the rumor being circulated. It’s not the reality. It’s a rumor spread for propaganda purposes. I really don’t think that someone sitting in an office somewhere issues directives saying show that soap opera show or that concert, or let this girl or by win that contest.
Q - I’m not talking about those types of shows. What I’m referring to are the news broadcasts and the social/political shows.
A - If you’re referring to the later then APTV has three such programs: “Yevrapolis”, “Haylur” and “360 Degrees”, which is based on large-scale reportage and is somewhat an analytical broadcast. If you’re talking about “Yevrapolis” you should know that it invited all the presidential candidates to appear at the time. I can only talk to you about “Haylur” since I have nothing to do with “360 Degrees”. To put it mildly, it’s incorrect to say that “Haylur” is specifically controlled from one center. Perhaps we show a bit of restraint when it comes to certain issues, and perhaps this didn’t occur in certain cases, but this cannot be attributed to being centrally controlled.
Q - No, I have specific facts. In one case we ascertained the fact that before a certain program was to air the President’s Office issued a directive saying that even the text had to be written by them. We published an article on the matter later on.
A - It’s not a possibility for the text to be written somewhere else, or as you claim, in the President’s Office. However, if we’re talking about a given news story, then it’s only natural that suggestions be made about a specific theme.
Q - I’m talking about a defamatory piece. Let me refresh your memory. I’m talking about the piece referring to the organization run by Raffi Hovhannisyan’s wife, Armineh.
A - I remember. That piece wasn’t signed by the reporter before airing. It was put together from various sources.
Q - But the news anchor stated, “through our news investigation we have uncovered”. Doesn’t it seem absurd not to state the name of the reporter?
A - That was more of an inquiry than a news investigation since it wasn’t the result of just one person’s work.
Q - That’s just my point. APTV itself doesn’t decide its political line.
A - That’s absolutely not the case. There’s something a bit debatable here. What is meant by “the APTV isn’t in charge of its political orientation”? Even the wording is questionable. Such claims are only meant to defame APTV.
Q - Let’s talk facts. When covering the opposition rallies you exhibited a specific approach. You’d film the rallies from such a vantage point that it appeared that only a few people were in the crowd or you’d only film guys spitting out sunflower seeds. Was there a reason for this?
A - And what was the reason for this reporter to be assaulted by that same opposition at those rallies? And when the reporter goes and asks one of the organizers to request that the crowd calm down that person, whom we consider a colleague, turns his head and says that I didn’t see anything happen. They attacked our cameraman and scratched his face. We didn’t say a thing about all this but it happened and other journalists were eyewitnesses.
Q - So you want to say that journalists were physically assaulted and that’s the reason.
A - Yes. On many occasions I prohibited my reporters from going there because I’d have to send a few other people as assistants, to encircle the cameramen so that nothing would happen to them. A state of mind was created there that if you were from APTV you would have to be beaten, that you weren’t considered a normal person and that you could be spat upon.
Q - But why do you think such an attitude came about?
A - I haven’t the foggiest. One of the leading candidates in 2003 had written, “Haylur” was an obsequious news program” in one of his campaign ads. (The candidate is question was Artashes Geghamyan-E.B.) I met with him before going on the air and asked him why he said such a thing. He answered that even though he had nothing of substance to back it up with his statement was just a propaganda ploy since appearing as the victim brought certain dividends. These propaganda gambits haven’t changed much in five years. Perhaps being cast as the victim by the #1 media outlet is actually advantageous.
Q - When we watch “Haylur” today we note certain changes. You’ve started to cover some of the rallies and demos. How do you get away with it? Don’t they try and prevent you?
A - It’s all up in the air. We film from some distance and show the footage without any audio or spoken text.
Q - No, I remember some audio.
A - A the last rally we covered our reporter and cameraman were assaulted. They called the office and I told them to move back and film it from some distance.
Q - Perhaps this attitude towards you would change if you started to cover events normally.
A - I don’t believe this attitude will change because the climate is so tense and polarized. This attitude was already being expressed at the rallies when people were saying - if you’re not with us you are scum. Let me ask a question. Don’t you think that there’s a real desire and need for an independent press in Armenia, because everything is so polarized?
Q - Yes, the crisis is also within the media]
A - Let me cite a recent example. Two young woman reporters who had been friends, working in the same office, are now in different political camps. If they meet on the street they don’t greet one another and in fact bad-mouth each other in passing. In this situation the press vanishes and reporters can’t do their jobs. Don’t you agree?
Q - I agree but there’s another issue at stake here. Perhaps one of them at one point violated their professional ethics by corrupting the press into something else.
A - No, that wasn’t the case. You can put it this way - one of them transformed from being a reporter into an ideological lumpen-revolutionary but continued working as a reporter while the other didn’t participate in any political movement and continued her work.
Q - Not only is the opposition dissatisfied with APTV but representatives of the regime as well. Why do you think they are dissatisfied?
A - I can bring a few examples and we can attempt to analyze the situation together. Let’s not get into a framework where you ask the questions and I’m merely forced to defend myself.
Q - I’d rather focus on what needs to be done to reestablish confidence not only in “Haylur” but generally, in all news services. One of our reporters interviewed some average citizens and it turns out that they don’t trust the news outlets. That wasn’t the case before.
A - They blame us for reporting false information, something for which they have no basis to do. They can perhaps blame us for not reporting this or that, but never for disseminating false news. The fact is either we don’t cover a certain issue or we report in factually. Let me bring an example. One of the radio stations in addition to many newspapers and political activists spread the news that a Vilis Police Car drove through the crowd and ran over 3-4 people. We didn’t report that story since we had no proof to back it up with. Even if we did have proof we might not have reported the event. I don’t want to completely justify what we did but we didn’t report this. Later on when we pieced together footage taken by our cameramen we saw that no one had been run over by the car and we stated this on the air and showed the footage we had to prove this conclusion. Immediately afterwards we were accused of editing the video footage in such a way to make it appear that no one had been injured. During the police investigation Stepan Safaryan testified that he hadn’t been an eyewitness to the alleged event but that the crowd had told him that had happened. Mr. Safaryan however went to the press and stated that the event actually happened. When one of the Parliamentary Deputies saw the footage in court he said something to the effect that - wow, you were able to edit it already. The court investigator requested that the footage be delivered to him. His driver went to the Heritage Party office and picked up the video footage and they saw that it was the same footage. In other words, they were so riled-up that they failed to watch the footage carefully and made that misleading statement. In this case what should the APTV have done? Should it have also stated that the Vilis ran over some people? Let me talk about another incident when video footage appeared on the Internet showing people shooting. We started to investigate and stated that the shells used were such and such. No one attempted to prove the contrary but rather they began to state that “Haylur” was disseminating disinformation in an attempt to defend the shooters. We don’t state that shots weren’t fired but we do state that the shots fired in that footage weren’t military rounds. We never stated that shots weren’t fired. We merely stated that what you claim to have happened doesn’t correspond to reality. Which approach is more honest-minded?
Q - The events of March 1st are an entire separate topic. Let’s not discuss them here. It’s a very sensitive issue that requires more depth than we can devote here. None of us still can say for certain how those people died. Official statements have nothing to say about the matter - who did the shooting, why did they shoot, from where? Why haven’t the relatives come forth to speak about the matter? Let's get back to the question why people don't believe the news broadcasts.
A - Of course there are reasons for this. But I can show you a piece of footage taken at the rally where one of our colleagues finds fault with «Haylur” and tells the people not to watch the program and continues by stating that the only place to get true news is Freedom Square. Right after that statement was made we received another piece of news that people had begun to line up outside of banks, that officials were withdrawing their money, and that panic had set in.
Q - But that was just a ploy used at the rallies. It's another subject that has nothing to do with what I'm talking about.
A - No, these are drips and drabs of a much larger scheme that was put into operation quite effectively. These drips and drabs were collected and turned into a cup of water which in turn was emptied into a bigger pot, and so on. Of course it was a ploy, a scheme that they put to good use.
Q - All this has nothing to do with our work. Again, let's start with what needs to be done so that the society trusts the news outlets, especially Armenian Public TV.
A - Many have expressed a variety of opinions and philosophical thoughts on the matter. I don't have that answer myself today. Whatever you do the other side will find fault with it claiming it's just a ruse.
Q - At present, social discussion of the issues is taking place in various forums. Why haven't you covered this debate?
A - We are covering it but the situation remains the same, polarized. Now do you get the picture? Do what you will but if one side is so convinced that the yogurt is black it will remain that color till the end.
Q - How is the political stance of APTV arrived at. How do you decide what programs should go on the air?
A - I'm only responsible for the news program. I don't participate in those discussions; I mean to say network-wide discussions.
Q - In your estimation what are the issues confronting our news outlets today?
A - The biggest challenge we now face is to be able to report the news in an unbiased manner, not to take sides. If something happens we must present it matter-of-factly and include differing points of view. What people might say afterwards isn't important. Firstly, I'd agree that the station has been somewhat limited in scope; it needs to expand. I'd also agree that there's been a certain scarcity in programs of a social/political nature. It is necessary that this area is developed and individuals be given the possibility to express themselves more openly. The talk shows must have certain specific themes. All those discussions and debates must be given air time as well.
Q - But your reporters have such strong proclivities that it's apparent from the outset.
A - Unfortunately, we don't have reporters that can host talk shows. It has been decided to broadcast two new programs with social/political themes. I can't say how this will be arranged. Right now we are trying to open-up the TV station.