Armenia’s New Journalists

The collapse of Soviet-style journalism has brought a new type of writer to the fore-youthful, enthusiastic, but often without training or experience. A problem in Armenian journalism is the need to replace Soviet-era training with new methods. Ruben A. Satyan says he assigns new recruits at Vremya to senior editors for on-the-job training. Astghik Gevorkian, chair of the refashioned Soviet-era Union of Journalists, says journalism departments in state educational institutions have been unable to adjust to new conditions because their professors are holdovers from the Communist era.

Some experienced editors say the new journalists fail to differentiate news from views; are insufficiently concerned about accuracy; lack historical and political knowledge; and are unskilled in interviewing and developing sources. As a result, young journalists are sometimes inept at digging out facts, and can be thrown off the scent by clever officials.

Senior members of the Yerevan Press Club tend to confirm this assessment. “We don’t yet have a critical mass of good journalists,” says one officer. “There are only about a handful who really can go after information and dig it out, and those are usually working for foreign news agencies.”

Naine Mkrtchian, a youthful woman reporter for Azg, rankles under such charges. She asserts that government officials are largely to blame for placing obstacles in the way of all but friendly reporters. President of the newly formed National Press Club, this young woman feels the Soviet heritage of press controls still weighs too heavily in Yerevan. She opposes the draft press law, developed by the Yerevan Press Club, which she considers insufficiently democratic. “A press law in itself means regulation; the fewer rules, the better,” she says. One experienced journalist sums up the mood in Armenian journalism today: “You work without the feeling of hope that your work is going to be useful to someone. Yes, there is pluralism of views, but that pluralism is pushed into a small box. There is pluralism but not that much objectivity. The government tolerates this, but we get the impression that this is a gesture to the West.”

Efforts are being made to train the new generation of journalists and to develop a general code of ethics. Both the Yerevan Press Club (60 members) and the Union of Journalists (1,500 members) have held training seminars for journalists, supported by several western foundations. The independent television station A1+ received a grant for short-term instruction of television journalists which was deemed to be successful. Several new private colleges are reported to have opened journalism departments, but their quality is unknown.

The Yerevan Press Club has developed a 12-point declaration of support for independent media. But this document is concerned principally with the management of media rather than ethical conduct of journalists. The newly formed, 20-member National Press Club reports that it has created a committee to develop a code of ethics. Non-governmental organizations taking an interest in these activities include the British East-West Center, The European Institute for Media, The Thomson Foundation, The European Center for Journalism, The Open Media Research Institute, The Tacis Democracy Program, the Eurasia Foundation, The Soros Foundation, and the Armenian Assembly of America.

About the Author

Nicholas Daniloff was catapulted to international attention in 1986 during one of the last crises of the Cold War. In August 1986, the United States arrested Gennadi F. Zakharov, a Soviet citizen assigned to the United Nations Secretariat, and charged him with espionage. In retaliation, the Soviet Union arrested Daniloff in the final days of a five-year assignment in Moscow as bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report. The incident was resolved during three weeks of negotiations by U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze: Daniloff would be released and the case against him closed; Zakharov would be tried, found guilty, and expelled from the United States, and some dozen ailing Soviet citizens would be allowed to travel to the West for medical treatment.

Daniloff now directs the journalism program at Northeastern University in Boston. He has maintained an active interest in the development of media in the former Soviet Union, and has continued to travel throughout Russia. During a sabbatical leave in the early part of 1997, he and his family lived in Baku, where he lectured on democracy and the role of the independent press at Garb University.

The son of a Russian refugee and an American mother, Daniloff began his journalistic career in 1957 at the age of 21 as a copy boy at The Washington Post. He joined United Press International as a desk editor in 1959, and became UPI bureau chief in Geneva in August 1960. The following year, he was assigned to the Moscow bureau of UPI, where he worked until 1965.

Returning to the United States, he rejoined The Washington Post as an editor on the foreign desk. He left the newspaper in 1966 to cover the State Department for the Washington bureau of UPI. Through 1980, he also covered the U.S. Congress, the Defense Department, and, on occasion, the White House for UPI. In 1980, he joined U.S. News and World Report and served as bureau chief in Moscow from 1981 to 1986. Daniloff holds an A.B. degree from Harvard University and an M.A. degree from Oxford University. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, 1973-1974, and a fellow of the Shorenstein Center for Press/Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, 1987-1989. He is the author of two books‹The Kremlin and the Cosmos (1972), and Two Lives, One Russia (1988)‹and various academic articles dealing with post-Soviet media.

The Uses and Abuses of Freedom:
An Interview with Levon Zourabian

Q. From your vantage point, how is the free press developing in Armenia today?

A. The first assertion I would make, which no one can deny, is that in Armenia there is absolute freedom of the press.

The government official responding to my question with such certainty was Levon Zourabian, presidential press secretary to Levon Ter-Petrossian. I walked into his modest office in the presidential palace on a hot summer afternoon as part of my inquiry into freedom of the press in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Zourabian, 33, joined the national democratic movement in Armenia in 1988, abandoning his first love, physics, in favor of reforming the nation. He struck me as resembling another famous press spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, lately of the Clinton White House. He is youthful, intelligent, almost cocky in his assurance.

As chamber music wafted from his desk-top radio, Zourabian made clear that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press‹so important for a democracy‹will not automatically ensure a vibrant and healthy mass media.

“It’s another matter,” he continued, “that you have put down soil and water it, but the seeds have not had time to grow. The bad economic situation in Armenia has not produced independent financial, industrial groups. The press has very few means of financing itself. Freedom there is, but the use of this freedom is weak.”

Besides difficulties in obtaining financing, Zourabian stressed two otherproblems of the Armenian press today. First, post-Soviet journalists are often ill-prepared to question officials. They lack knowledge and interviewing skills. He recalled that when he took up the position of press secretary, he prepared himself thoroughly for his first encounter with journalists. He crafted a careful defense of 14 weak spots in the government’s policies. But he was questioned about only one.

“I’ve been to America,” he added, “and I’ve seen how the journalists eat White House spokesman Mike McCurry alive. Not our journalists.”

Second, Zourabian insisted, the Armenia press abuses its new-found freedoms. As an example he quoted from an article which appeared in the newspaper Iravunk (circulation 10,000) only that morning. He read:

“Today it is sad to note that Armenia has turned into a country where every development in government has lost its real purpose and significance and has become merely a claim. The authorities are seen, not as servants of the people, but as bandit groups. The court system is perceived as bribe-taking tribunals; the parliament, the tool of small and big clans; democracy as the demagogic explanation of a dictatorship, and elections as trickery.”

He continued quoting, “The people have the right and are bound to lead a decent life; to create their own self-sustaining economy; to liberate the country from foreign influence, and give power to those who will serve the nation best. And in fulfilling this right, the people may act in every accessible way.”

That, said Zourabian, is an incendiary appeal which could lead to an armed uprising against the Petrossian government. Yet, for the moment, the government will tolerate it in the name of freedom of speech.

“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. “One 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, were sealed and not re-opened until November 25. (Ayzhm had questioned 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 station’s 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.