There are two views of the press in Armenia today. The first holds that the press is entirely free to report as it chooses. The second is that the press is irresponsible. One thing is certain: In the absence of censorship, Armenian officials resort to verbal pressure and sometimes physical retribution, to knock journalists into line.
Ruben A. Satyan, editor in chief of the Russian – language newspaper Vremya, recounts a run – in with officials. In describing a military parade in 1994, he reported that one Armenian general was wearing non – regulation trousers. Because of a shortage of uniforms, the general had sewn red stripes on pants intended for a private.
Satyan was summoned to the military prosecutor’s office, and given a dressing down. He was warned to be more careful in the future. “How old are you?” demanded the prosecutor, Satyan recalls. When Satyan answered, “I’m 48,” the prosecutor retorted, “It’s good you’re not 45, otherwise, I’d have you sent to fight in Karabakh.”
The view of the press from the presidential office is equally harsh. An advisor to President Ter – Petrossian cites this example. He recalls the case of an elderly survivor of the 1915 genocide asked him to inquire into the fate of his grandson whose release from prison on good behavior was being held up. A prison official was demanding a $300 bribe. The advisor says he referred the matter to a presidential commission which oversees prison sentences. The commission identified the extortionist and fired him; the young man was released. But the presidential advisor says that journalists, reporting the incident in the press, accused him of abuse of power without seeking his side of the story.
“They never even bothered to call me to find out the facts. They were afraid that they would be proved wrong, this advisor recalls. And he continued, The press is absolutely free here. Things are written which can’t be written in Europe – I mean the degree of hatred and disrespect I see. I seldom feel that what is written in our press is opening a new thought or adding a dimension to my thinking. I’m not satisfied.
Seeking to build a democratic society in which media play a major role, Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, has given free rein to the press. Journalists concede that the new era has, on occasion, bordered on license. Some of our journalists attack the president like hooligans, says one editor. The bitter truth is that editors and reporters have discovered that a high level of liberty combined with inexperienced, opinionated, young reporters who are careless about verifying facts has led to errors, denials, corrections, and general loss of credibility in the media. An unhealthy confrontation between press and government has arisen in recent years in which officials have on more than one occasion taken revenge. The Yerevan Press Club has kept track of incidents each year; 1996 was particularly bad.
According to a number of observers, 1996 was a record year in the history of independent Armenia in terms of violations of freedom of speech and of the press, as well as the rights of individual journalists, states the January 1997 edition of the club’s newsletter. ÒOne can logically assume that this increase in the number of violations and sanctions on the part of the authorities last year was related to the presidential elections. By all accounts, the government was shocked at the negative reporting of the September 22, 1996, presidential balloting. When the demonstration against parliament led by opposition candidate Vazgen Manukian erupted in violence, the government sent tanks and water cannons onto the streets. Photo and television images of disorder did much to damage the image of Armenian democracy abroad, and the government reacted by cracking down on the press. The Yerevan Press Club cited these incidents:
¥ September 26, 1996: The headquarters of the National Democratic Union party, where the offices of the weekly Ayzhm are located, the adoption of the constitution). The editor, Vigen Sarkisian, and staff nevertheless managed to put out the newspaper despite this unexpected complication. The newsletter suggested this incident constituted unjustified harassment.
¥ September 26, 1996: Gagik Mkrtchian, editor of the opposition newspaper Golos Armenii, was taken to security headquarters and beaten, apparently because of the critical articles he wrote. He denied he was a member of the Dashnak party, whose activities had been banned. He was held in jail without charge for 10 days, then released.
¥ September 27-29, 1996: Threats were made by officials against several foreign correspondents who reported on the government use of force against the demonstration at the National Assembly after the September 22 presidential elections. An Armenian working for Russian TV was summoned by Minister of Defense Vazgen Sarkissian, who allegedly wanted to give an interview. On arrival, the journalist was beaten. When the minister appeared, he deplored the beating but said the correspondent should not have filmed Armenian tanks on the streets.
¥ Journalist Argo Kivirian, author of articles in the newspaper Lragir promoting an expansion of Armenian territory, was arrested for allegedly breaking the peace during the demonstration at the National Assembly. As of January 20, 1997, he was in jail while the prosecutor considered his case.
By contrast, in 1995, the Yerevan journalists suffered only a handful of incidents and the situation seemed to be improving following the depradations of the previous year. In 1994, one journalist was killed and several editorial offices were ransacked or set on fire.
One of the most frequently cited actions against the press was the order by President Ter-Petrossian in December 1994 to temporarily ban the political activities of the Dashnak party and close its associated publications. About a dozen Dashnak-affiliated newspapers were forced to stop printing.
It was not done legally, but it was the right thing to do, acknowledges Tigran Hakobian, director of the government press agency Armenpress. These newspapers were very negative, claiming everyone was corrupt and predicting the new Armenia was going to crash. Azatamart had a policy, he asserts, of publishing unflattering pictures of the president. A photographer, who later quit the newspaper, reportedly acknowledged he had orders to make Ter-Petrossian look bad whenever he went out on assignment.
The year 1994 brought other attacks on the press. In April, Vardges Petrosian, a parliamentary deputy and editor of the weekly Yekir Nairi, was shot to death. Law enforcement agencies offered rewards for help in the investigation. No perpetrator was ever found, and the motives for the killing remained unclear.
In August 1994, Michael Vardanian, Gyumri government representative, barged into the Haylur News Agency in Gyumri and physically attacked three parliamentary deputies Arshak Sadoyan, David Vardanian, and Rudik Hovhannesian who had been invited to the offices. He then then ransacked the office, causing $25,000 damage to computers.
In October 1994 journalists from 30 media outlets sent a protest to the government about the instances of violence: We, media professionals, are fully aware of our reponsibilities towards society and will fulfill our professional duty. Simultaneously, we demand the goverment create necessary conditions for the proper functoning of the mass media, both important for society and the state.
Armenian journalists are caught in a vicious circle: They bear the wrath of government officials who say reporters are neither fair nor balanced; at the same time, they often find it impossible to present the full picture because officials withhold information. Because of war and blockade, Armenia has been relatively isolated from the outside world. Journalists clearly need more contact with Western practice which seeks to present all sides of a story. On the other side, officials need to learn that in a democracy, honesty rather than evasion or cover-up is the best policy. Unfortunately, Western journalists have largely by-passed the Caucasus, preferring to offer their advice on how independent journalists operate to the new democracies of Eastern Europe.
Government pressure against journalists has produced contradictory reactions in the journalistic community. Some journalists assert that the attacks only feed their contrariness. Others admit to reacting with caution and self-censorship. One of the more notable reactions came from the radio station Hai-FM 105.5. In the immediate aftermath of the presidential elections, station owner Anahit Tarkanian, apparently fearing reprisals from the political opposition for allowing a pro-government tilt in interview programs, requested protection from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The ministry obligingly sealed the stationÕs offices temporarily and prevented workers from entering the building.
Intimidation persists, in the view of reporters. On June 18, 1997, the Ministry of National Security summoned three journalists from the independent Noyan Tapan News Agency for questioning about the sources of an article on the OSCE effort to mediate a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Interrogators suggested the journalists, whose agency exchanges information with the Azerbaijan News Service in Baku, were harming national interests.
Presidential Press Secretary Levon Zourabian put a softer spin on the incident. In a letter to CPJ, Zourabian asserted that the security service was only doing its duty in trying to plug a leak, since the Armenian government had agreed to strict confidentiality about the mediation effort. The journalists, on the other hand, felt intimidated. Zourabian asserted in his letter that the journalists were not being criminally charged and could have walked out of the meeting at any time.
State’s Hand Weighs Heavily on Armenian Television
The main source of news and information about Armenia comes to Armenians through nationwide television. As in Azerbaijan, television is the one medium capable of reaching the vast majority of citizens and for that reason the government oversees it carefully. Although there is no official censorship in Armenia, television is regulated by a loyalty system that is censorship in all but name. Many viewers find the offerings of state television uninteresting and prefer to surf the Russian channels, RTR and ORT, which broadcast a total of 40 hours a day compared to nine hours a day for Armenian television. The main government news program is “Lhraber,” which airs nightly on Channel 1, at 6:05 p.m. for 10 minutes and at 8:30 p.m. for 25 minutes. Yerevaners complain that the program focuses heavily on government activities and does not treat issues which touch them directly. The script is written in stilted officialese, and is frequently accompanied by poor – quality clips. Late – breaking developments often fail to make the show.
“You’ve got to understand,” says one former employee of state television and radio, “that television’s goal is to assure and defend presidential power and President Ter – Petrossian’s policies. On the other hand, I would not say our television is creating a cult of personality around Ter – Petrossian as is happening in Azerbaijan [with President Aliyev’s coverage].”
These observations are confirmed by a 119 – page sociological study titled “Mass Media of Armenia,” (Sredtsva Massovoi Informatsii Armenii) published in Yerevan by Tim Enterprises in 1996 and financed by the Eurasia Foundation, a privately managed nonprofit corporation that distributes USAID funds. Editors Mark Grigorian and Avet Demourian, members of the Yerevan Press Club, found that a substantial majority of respondents to their opinion polls (72.4 percent) preferred to get their news from television, but not Armenian television.
When asked to evaluate Armenian television against the two Russian channels, respondents answered that they favored ORT and RTR for newsworthiness, interest, objectivity, and analysis. Russian television was preferred by 41.2 percent of respondents. A minority of 22.9 percent opted for Armenian television and the balance viewed Armenian and Russian television with equal interest. The editors’ polls also showed that only 12.1 percent of respondents got their news from newspapers, and only 11.3 percent from radio.
Alex Iskandarian, a television journalist with long Soviet experience, is the chief of the Television Analytic Information Agency, which puts together the “Lhraber” program. At the downtown offices of state television, he creates and coordinates each day’s program, as he frantically tries to answer telephone calls.
“We work by government order,” he says candidly. “We decide by smell what to put on. We don’t give the opposition view, but we don’t always put on what the ministries want, either.” He explains that ministries sometimes give him materials to air, but he has the right to object, and he exercises it. He justifies government control by appealing to the difficulties of the transitional economy. But he says he foresees a freer era “if we have peace.”
“For now, we need to have television in the hands of the state to tell people that we are in a tough situation. It’s difficult to come from a socialist past and go to real democracy.” Iskandarian confirmed that financial difficulties have cut deeply into the quality of state television broadcasts. Reporters, editors, and producers get from $10 – $60 a month; technicians, about $40. Iskandarian complained he does not have sufficient funds to maintain his Betacam cameras. And he revealed one reason for slow reaction time to breaking news. “Lhraber” is produced daily in the downtown offices, then transported by car to the transmitting studio 20 minutes away, on top of the northeasterly hills overlooking the city.
A visit to the hillside studios and the red – and – white television tower is a voyage back into the impoverished Soviet past. The massive building is run – down – the broad corridors poorly lit, the parquet flooring coming apart in places. The cavernous emptiness of the place is eerie: of the 3,000 employees who used to work for state television during Soviet times only 2,000 are left. Only a small portion of them work on the hill.
Armenia’s television operation is overseen by Perch Stepanian, who joined state television in 1967; he was named chief in 1995. This white – haired administrator, like so many other officials, seems to be struggling to adapt to Armenia’s new ways. Asked what he considers to be the main goals of contemporary television, he replies, “One of our major goals is to present the government’s programs. But we must also give time to the political opposition.”
He explains that opposition figures are invited to participate in discussion shows such as “Orenk yev ishkhantyun” (Law and Power), “Dem ar Dem” (Face to Face), or “Hingshabti”(Thursday). They don’t always accept, though. “We have lots of live coverage where people can proclaim what they want,” he says. But he concedes that the lion’s share of air time goes to the government. “That’s dictated by our status.”
During the 1996 presidential elections, President Ter – Petrossian appeared so often on Channel 1 that many Yerevaners say they tired of his appearances. The channel devoted 84 percent of its campaign coverage to Ter – Petrossian, and only 4 percent to Vazgen Manukian, the leading opposition candidate, according to “Monitoring the Media Coverage of the 1996 Armenian Presidential Elections,” a study by the European Institute for the Media published in January 1997.
Uncertain Future for Armenians’ Internet Access
|Nicholas Daniloff, en route to Yerevan, Armenia.|
Another source of independent news is the Internet. So far, access for the public in Yerevan is limited but available at the Institute of Physics, the U.S. Information Service, and IREX, the American exchange agency for scholars. Two Internet providers, Arminco and Infocom, provide service to a few wealthy subscribers. In the city of Gyumri, access is available at the non – governmental organization (NGO) center. The government did not try to interfere directly with the Internet during the controversial presidential elections of 1996, but journalists noted that city telephone lines and ATT lines were sporadically cut, complicating access.
The government recently named Garekin Chookaszian, a computer expert, to head the newly created Chief Directorate for Information and Book Publishing. This agency replaces the Ministry of Press and Information, which was disbanded under Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian. Chookaszian’s activities will bear watching to see if he promotes access to the Internet for all citizens, or seeks to limit its informational possibilities when they include critical views of the Ter – Petrossian government.
Armenia’s Print Media: Many Voices Vie for Scant Revenues
The print media are free in Armenia, but they are financially dependent and vulnerable to outside pressures. Because of the poor state of the economy, there is an inadequate advertising base. Newspapers cannot sustain themselves by sales and revenues from classified and general advertising. “You really have to have a sponsor or a wealthy individual to help if you are going to put out an independent newspaper,” says Ruben A. Satyan, Vremya’s editor in chief.
Today in Yerevan, a plethora of government, independent, and opposition newspapers vie for readers. This competition promotes sensationalism and discourages cooperative ventures in the journalistic community. Yet cooperation is needed to influence new legislation, to develop a journalistic code of ethics, and even to buy and share foreign news coverage from agencies such as Reuters and Agence France – Presse.
The economics of newspapering in Armenia today are forbidding. Newspapers sell for 30 drams (7 cents) for government broadsheets and up to 100 drams (22 cents) for independent or opposition newspapers. For a wage – earner who is bringing in only $40 a month ($1.33 a day), these prices are high. That means few Armenians can read all of the capital’s newspapers, and most will read only one or two on an irregular basis. Thus, the new pluralism of views is lost on the individual.
Editors face daunting challengesÐthey say 34 percent of income goes to pay a variety of taxes, and another 25 percent is spent on the state distribution agency, Haimamul. Yerevan newspapers are obliged by law to rely on Haimamul. (Outside of Yerevan, regional newspapers suffer similar financial difficulties which force them to come out irregularly and in very small editions). There is some talk among officials about privatizing this agency.
Another source of contention is Periodika, the state publishing house, which publishes all major Yerevan dailies. On occasion, Periodika has refused to publish opposition newspapers for reasons which are often unclear but appear to be political. While Periodika is not the only press available, it has established a firm hold on the market by offering attractive prices. Nevertheless, editors complain that Periodika overcharges for newsprint ($1,000 – 1,200 a ton) and that competition could force a reduction in rates.
Currently, the U.S. Embassy and government officials are discussing the possibility of financing an alternative publishing house for daily newspapers. The United States would provide a loan and a grant of $500,000 through USAID, according to American officials. The Armenian government reportedly has no objections. The major concern at this moment from the American side is the ability of an Armenian newspaper consortium to pay back the loan over a two – year period.
Ter – Petrossian Sends the Press Mixed Signals
President Levon Ter – Petrossian professes admiration for a free press, but his administration has set a negative tone in relations with the media – rarely, if ever, allowing interviews with the president. His aides give three explanations: First, the president is not a populist and does not seek to curry favor by frequent appearances. Second, frequent appearances would only debase the currency of his pronouncements. Third, the president feels the new Armenian media are immature and unprofessional.
Since coming to office in 1991, Ter – Petrossian has held only two official news conferences for the Armenian press, although he has made himself available for “protocol” press conferences when receiving foreign dignitaries. During the spring visit of Kyrgyzstan’s president Askar Akayev, Ter – Petrossian took questions from journalists for about 40 minutes. The president seems to prefer to speak with experienced foreign journalists. Consequently, some important disclosures relating to Armenian policy have come from abroad, clearly offending home – grown media.
Ministerial officials, taking their cue from the president, have felt free to adopt restrictive policies. The president’s office, parliament, the Foreign Ministry, and other government agencies require accreditation as set out by the Law on Mass Media. Article 29 of the law sets no specific criteria for accreditation. Usually, an editor’s letter of recommendation is required for accreditation, but some journalists say they have been denied accreditation for no clear reason other than a suspicion that they are “unfriendly” or “incompetent.” Besides accreditation from a specific ministry, journalists need accreditation from the Foreign Ministry and an identification card from their organization for daily work.
The Armenian law is vague on the removal of accreditation. The law does not include criteria for barring a reporter from a government agency. But it does provide for the removal of accreditation of foreign correspondents if they violate the laws or constitution of Armenia. In February 1994, the Foreign Ministry revoked the accreditation of David Petrossian, correspondent of the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy. An article he published in the Moscow newspaper Segodnya apparently offended then – foreign minister Vahan Papazian, who personally ordered the punishment.
Government ministries have established press offices but journalists report that their aim is more to protect the agency and the minister than to facilitate the flow of information. Furthermore, there is a tendency on the part of government press officials to supply news first to the official news agency, Armenpress, or to government media and friendly journalists. A number of Yerevan journalists say they were surprised to see that visiting German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel included on his plane a handful of journalists critical of German policy. That kind of access for the opposition press is inconceivable in Armenia today.
Even an open body such as the National Assembly is reluctant to share information with independent journalists. “I try to explain to them that it only advances their interests to share with me the bills that they are working on. But they don’t seem to understand. They seem to fear what we journalists are going to seize on,” says reporter Naine Mkrtchian of the newspaper Azg.
Events which fall under the Ministry of Defense are highly controlled and usually require the personal permission of the defense minister. During the recent visit of Alexander Lebed, the former Russian general and politician, ministry press officials ordered the media not to film Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian alongside Lebed. Officials said the political ramifications of showing them together were too complicated. At photo opportunities, journalists say, press officials frequently try to instruct the media. “If I see something unpleasant on TV, you will regret it,” is a threat often heard at such events. On the other hand, journalists report that firefighters and highway police are generally helpful in providing access to the scene of an accident unless specifically countermanded by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.