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Liana Sayadyan

Freedom of the Press is Just an Ideal

In Armenia, the media is centered around political parties and financial oligarchs

Over the last fourteen years, for financial and political reasons, Armenia has seen the survival, strengthening, and development (we have reservations about using the word "development", because neither the financial or professional level nor the circulation of the print media today bear witness to real development) of an exclusively partisan press. The period considered to be the golden age of the press, from independence to 1994, when the circulation of daily newspapers crossed the 50,000 mark, also saw only partisan periodicals - Azatamard, Yerkir (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), Azg (Liberal Democratic Party of Armenia), Hayk (Armenian National Movement), Iravunk (Constitutional Rights Union), and so on. A periodical that is the organ or official publication of a political party cannot be independent, although many of them occasionally suffer identity crises and start calling themselves independent.

For example, on November 20, 2004, on the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the weekly newspaperIravunk , Hayk Babukhanyan, the president of the editorial board, referred to the paper as "independent" in an interview with Armenian National Television. What about the fact that the front page of the paper bears the words "Official Newspaper of the CRU"?

Some press analysts and other experts in the field tend to regard Azg as "non-partisan", considering its broad thematic approach, and its ability to stand above narrow partisan interests while covering current affairs. While we agree with this point, we nevertheless consider Azg to be a partisan periodical. While covering election campaigns, in particular, Azg loses its sense of balance and turns into a purely partisan newspaper, promoting the political campaign of the Liberal Democratic Party or its chosen candidate.

Other periodicals with more right to call themselves independent are far from the ideal of the independent press. Commercial in nature, none of these periodicals comes close to being a truly high-quality paper. Press analyst Dennis McQuail sets the following guidelines for a quality newspaper - "formal independence from the government or other structures which pursue their own aims, the realization of the most important role of the paper in the social and political life of the community, a great sense of social and ethical responsibility, the development of professional journalism, which involves objective notification and reporting, at the same time a realization of the role played in the birth and formation of various viewpoints, and a tendency to identify itself with national interests."

McQuail explains that papers that divert from this ideal, towards being made to order, or towards pursuing sensation, cannot be considered high-quality, or objective.

The leader of the "independent" press, Aravot , was established by Vano Siradeghyan, a member of the ANM (Armenian National Movement) board, and the editor-in-chief of the paper, Aram Abrahamyan, does not hide his admiration for the former government. Hence, Aravot has not been independent from the start, and Vano Siradeghyan himself confessed on more than one occasion that by publishing Aravot he hoped to reestablish the popularity of the ANM. Today, when the ANM is no longer in power, Aravot is forced to adjust to different spheres of influence. There are financial oligarchs whose names are taboo for Aravot . No matter how solid the evidence of their misdeeds is, Aravot refuses to publish it. Similarly, certain people (from the previous government) are untouchable for Haykakan Zhamanak and others (from the current government) for Hayots Ashkharh .

The various spheres of influence are revealed most clearly during elections. The Yerevan Press Club's analysis of the coverage of the 2003 presidential election showed that Azg, Yerkir, Golos Armenii, Novoe Vremya, andHayots Ashkharh were all on the side of the incumbent president, while Ayb-Fe, Haykakan Zhamanak, Orran,and Aravot (comparatively less so) opposed him. Some newspapers were busy with the campaigns of their own candidates, like Iravunk (Aram Karapetyan), Ayzhm (Vazgen Manukyan) and Hayastani Communist(Vladimir Darbinyan). "Regarding the activity of private and partisan newspapers during the current election, we must note their clear (sometimes even officially declared) choice for or against a particular candidate. This provides the mass media market with a sense of pluralism, which helps readers make a better choice in conditions of conflicting information," read the YPC report. This pluralism is created by all the papers together, and no one periodical can on its own claim to meet the standards of independence or objectivity.

The large audience and immense power over its viewers that television enjoys make that medium even more attractive to the active players in the constant battle for political and economic supremacy. But the government in power always has a better chance at controlling it, as the primary provider of financial support.

It is unrealistic to speak of independent television in Armenia today. There is currently not even one opposition television channel that could be an alternative to the other channels, so that all of them together would provide some sense of pluralism, like the print media. The broadcast media is unquestionably within the sphere of influence of the government in power. And the intolerance towards even a single opposition channel (more specifically, towards A1+ ), in contrast to the print media, is due to the fact that newspapers, in reality, do not set the political stage in the media world. Even newspaper editors admit that the print media does not have much influence in Armenia, and is thus an ineffective tool for political campaigning. Television, on the other hand, can form public opinion, both creating "out-of-control situations" and nullifying them. Even with an untrained eye, any viewer can easily see whose tune each channel dances to.

The State Television Channel (H1) is Kocharyan's immediate mouthpiece and Armenia's Second Channel (H2) is "more Catholic than the Pope". Shant , which was established in Gyumri, had, in the beginning, real claims to being an independent TV channel, but after moving to Yerevan it too was subjected to the rules of the political game- become one of our own, or keep your mouth shut.

Politically, the television channel Kentron is an interesting case. It was created by the government to solve theA1+ issue, and after fulfilling this political mission, it was left in a state of uncertainty. The Sharm company had no need of Kentron , and it was soon sold to United Labor Party President Gurgen Arsenyan. Arsenyan, with a controlling interest in Kenton, told a correspondent from Haykakan Zhamanak that he had bought the channel from Sharm purely to spread the ideology of his political party. When the reporter asked if Kentron would become a campaign tool for the ULP, Arsenyan replied, "Absolutely. But that will happen after the elections, because our ideology is not just centered around election time, or, more specifically, does not end with the end of the elections." Under Arsenyan's management, Kentron showed a certain sense of objectivity and impartiality not typical of Armenian television.

Some journalists insist that this was done just to show the opponents of the government that "free speech" existed in Armenia, that there was an alternative to A1+ . Others think that the government realized that in order to calm the tense political atmosphere in 2003, "small portions of 'objectivity' were necessary," and that mission was handed to Kentron. This would mean that Kentron was just an imitation of an objective medium.

What happened when Kentron alone chose to air scenes of the dispersal of peaceful protestors on the night of April 12, 2004 should be viewed in this context. Following this "show of independence", on April 24, Gurgen Arsenyan "sold" the channel to Murad Guloyan, a member of parliament elected on a Republican Party list. "[Guloyan] is from the village of Arinj in the Kotayk province, and is thus a native of the same village as another MP, Gagik Tsaroukyan," wrote Haykakan Jamanak. We put the word "sold" in quotation marks, because some staff members at Kentron suggest that the sale was forced. We cannot rule out that Arsenyan's Kentron was being punished for not sticking to the script.

On April 30, 2004, in an interview with Haykakan Zhamanak, A1+ president Mesrop Movsesyan was asked whether the appointment of A1+ co-founder Aram Abrahamyan as Kentron 's director meant to show A1+that democracy does indeed exist in Armenia. He replied, "Robert Kocharyan would, of course, like to see an imitation free press in Armenia. As to proving this to A1+ , he wanted to do that through Gurgen Arsenyan, but Arsenyan slipped up, and was forced to sell Kentron. "

In the two years it's been on the air, Kentron has had three owners. The latest owner has replaced a number of directors in the past few months, and, judging from what the directors and reporters have said, the financial situation at the station is not very good, and the management is in disarray. Thus, Murad Guloyan's assurances that he'll be able to transform the channel into a lucrative business seem farfetched. It's obvious that he doesn't need the channel as business venture, either, but was made to buy Kentron for political reasons - to bring the channel under control.

It is clear that the financially dependent media cannot provide pluralism. The only channel that has had the financial means to be independent is Armenia . It is the only channel which operates with foreign capital and, seemingly, has no need for financial assistance - neither from the ruling government, nor from the oligarchs that serve it. But the Sargsyan family, the controlling shareholders of the channel, have no need of independence. They have won their audience through entertaining, politically harmless shows, and they seem indifferent to the political merit of their channel.

Armenia uses every opportunity to praise the government, and Robert Kocharyan's presence during the opening ceremony of CS Media City was a gesture of approval. Thanks to their loyalty, the Sargysan family owns a media corporation today - three television frequencies ( Armenia, Armnews, and TV5 ), a publishing house and weekly newspaper, a radio-station, and a studio complex. It doesn't seem to matter that CS Media City broadcast the Super System network illegally, without a permit. Indeed, it did A1+ , which had participated in every tender for a television frequency and "lost" each time, no good to prove in court that it was illegal to provide Armnews with a frequency, because no such media outlet was registered on the day the tender was announced - the Cinemax company had presented the claim, using Armnews ' technical resources and personnel. In Armenia, "our own" channels can work outside the law.

An even greater danger to freedom of the press is when television channels are appropriated by political parties. The owner of the ALM television channel, broadcast on a metric frequency, is the president of the People's Party, Tigran Karapetyan. The parliamentary elections held in 2003 showed that the channel was being used solely to campaign for that party. Going against all journalistic and ethical norms, throughout the whole election, Tigran Karapetyan was either his own guest, or the guest of one of his television company's correspondents. In reality, it is always election time at ALM , because the political ideology of the party is transmitted even when elections are over and the next elections are three years away. Even seemingly harmless programs like the show "New Voices".

Before the 2003 parliamentary elections, yet another oligarch, Hrant Vardanyan, president of Grand Holding, bought another television channel - AR . And because he was running on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak) list, AR also turned partisan during the election campaign.

Recently, on May 28, 2004, a new channel - Yerkir Media - went on the air, on the decimetric frequency of 54. Its de jure owner is Lusaber ltd. De facto , the channel is run by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation - quite a few of its thirteen shareholders belong to the party. Despite constant denials of the link between the political party and the channel by former executive director Rubina Ghazaryan, who insisted that there were no more ARF members among the shareholders than members of other political parties in other media, the fact that the director of the department of news and political programming at the television channel is Gegham Manukyan, former editor of Yerkir , and former member of the supreme council of the ARF (currently a regular member), proves our point. It is beyond doubt that Yerkir Media has been procured with long-term political goals, and will be used as a political instrument during the 2007 parliamentary, and 2008 presidential elections.

We won't go into particular detail regarding the provincial media, because the situation is the same everywhere - television channels and newspapers are under the control of local or provincial authorities. I was in Kapan in September 2004 and visited the only television channel in Syunik - Sosi . I was talking to the director of the channel about the recently-held mayoral elections, and he joked, "That's the mayor we appointed." There was a lot of truth in the joke, and it characterizes the relationship between the local media and local leadership - they work "in harmony".

There is no alternative - in the economically poor regions, media outlets cannot expect profit from advertising, because hardly any advertising exists. To survive, all they can do is to rely on the goodwill of the local leadership.

Developments in the media around the globe, and especially in post-Soviet countries, leave no reason to be optimistic. And real freedom of the press will most likely be just an ideal for a long time to come.