Uncertain Future for Armenians’ Internet Access

Stepanian acknowledges that many television programs do not elicit the kind of interest he would like to see. “Our workers come with Soviet experience,” he explains. “It is difficult for them to forget Glavlit [censorship] and self-censorship and to teach them freedom. Mostly the fault is with the journalists, rather than the government.” There is talk among officials in Armenia about giving state television a semi-independent status. During his tenure as premier (November 1996-March 1997), Armen Sarkissian, a believer in an independent press, wanted to separate television from government, while retaining some editorial control over Channel 1. Presidential Press Secretary Levon Zourabian says Channels 1 and 2 might be privatized by auction, although there is concern about keeping them out of the hands of business interests who might ignore the public trust and use them to promote their own selfish, commercial interests.

Officials are studying control of television in Britain and France even as the National Assembly prepares to debate the draft law on television, possibly this fall. Director Stepanian is not enthusiastic about the bill. He says it does not provide the mechanism needed to put television under mixed government-private control.

Of course, an administrative reorganization would be only a first step toward improving the credibility and popularity of state television. The focus of programming should shift to issues relevant to ordinary citizens and away from the activities of officials. And Armenian television journalists would profit from training and on-the-job experience in Europe or the United States.

The state’s Channel 1 and Channel 2 (the second channel is also known as Nork) are only part of the picture of television in Armenia. Eighteen independent stations have cropped up across the country, including A1+, a private company in Yerevan. This station, run by a journalistic entrepreneur Mesrop Movsesian, has made a name for itself with its courageous reporting. It aired two-and-a-half hours of coverage of the opposition’s raid on parliament following the disputed presidential elections of 1996, reaching an audience of 150,000 (about 15 percent of Yerevan’s 1 million population). Another independent station, Ashtarak TV, also sent a reporter to cover the event, which was minimized by State Television and Radio. Afterwards, the Ashtarak station director was beaten up.

Movsesian got the message and has moderated his broadcasts by giving access to government views. He hired Aram Abramyan, a former presidential press secretary, to host a Sunday analysis program.

A1+ is located in eight dingy rooms in an Academy of Sciences building in central Yerevan. On May 31, 1997, the station broadcast a critical piece about the judicial system in Armenia on its 9:45 p.m. newscast. The previous night it had aired a segment on the slow city clean-up after the traditional, all-night, celebration of high school graduation.

Internews, the California-based foundation, is encouraging the creation of a network of independent television stations in Armenia and is cooperating with stations in Armavir, Ashtarak, Vanadzor, Goris, Gyumri, Yerevan, and Hrazdan. These stations are already producing a 20-minute, weekly news program, completely independent of government, which is distributed among the stations.

Uncertain Future for Armenians’ Internet Access

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 provincial base in Nakhchivan to become speaker of parliament and eventually president, a post confirmed by popular vote later in the year. Aliyev, who is expected to be the leading candidate in the presidential elections of 1998, is using the power of incumbency to suppress the campaigns of opponents like Elchibey.

As president, Aliyev has consolidated his power through strong-arm rule. He has weathered conspiracies to unseat him in 1994 and 1995; arrested his principal opponents; dismissed former allies from high posts; prevented the army from gaining excessive power by sacking generals; and involved himself directly in promotions. By manipulating the parliamentary elections of November 12, 1995-criticized by observers as seriously flawed-Aliyev’s cohorts succeeded in stacking the 125-member Milli Medjlis with supporters. Aliyev also packed the judiciary and the bureaucracy with his own people, many of them cronies from Nakhchivan.

Aliyev has exercised tight control over the media, which includes opposition and independent newspapers, as well as government organs. Censorship is routine, and opposition newspapers-the censors’ primary targets-often lose several articles an issue. Aliyev has toughened or relaxed controls on the press at critical moments to provide a semblance of free expression and democracy-building. His tools have included the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in the Media, the Soviet-era censorship organization popularly known as “Glavlit”; financial pressures; legal harassment; and extra-judicial measures. At the same time, Aliyev has allowed non-governmental and human rights organizations to operate in Baku and has lessened the intrusive nature of the political police in day-to-day life.

Despite repressive domestic policies, Azerbaijan enjoys an atmosphere of political stability and economic hope, which attracts foreign oil companies. The World Bank estimates that at least 25 percent of the economy has been privatized, possibly more. Inflation has dropped to about 6 percent a year, and growth in GDP is anticipated at 3-4 percent this year. Average wages are approximately $40 a month, and a family of four needs $120-$250 a month to live, forcing families to have more than one breadwinner.