Saturday, 07 December

The Press Doesn't Worry the Government Much

An Interview with Aram Abrahamyan, editor-in-chief of Aravot

Mr. Abrahamyan, do you differentiate between the notions of an "independent press" and "freedom of the press"? Which of these do we have in Armenia?

That's a hard question. Freedom is based on freedom of speech, and individual freedom. In that context, our press and, specifically, our newspaper, are much freer than they are independent. Independence is more of a utilitarian, pragmatic concept. For instance, if the press or a newspaper can survive on its income, on its sales and advertising, on money from its readers, then that press is independent, and in that sense maybe only Eter[a television guide] is independent. Or the women's newspapers and magazines, which print crossword puzzles, they're independent, too, but how much they're part of the press is another question. The press that discusses serious issues, that is, socio-political issues, is not independent in Armenia.

What conditions would be necessary for that?

We need better newspaper sales and, of course, the establishment of a mature advertising market, which doesn't exist now, and which depends not only on our country's overall economic state, but also on the quality of our newspapers. I always look for a reason in myself if something doesn't work out, and in this case our newspaper isn't addressing the issues or topics that interest people so that they dash to the newsstand every day to buy Aravot . We can't do that, and as a result our sales aren't high enough, so we look elsewhere for funds.

Do you believe that the advertising market is influenced by politics and that relations between advertising agencies and the media depend on certain political variables? That is, is the market divided among the media outlets depending on their political aspirations?

I would agree with that view, if we were talking only about TV, since it's obvious that certain ad agencies were given orders to not give any advertising to A1+. I don't think the same is true of the print media. The press doesn't worry the government much. It doesn't have to give orders to its oligarchs, since our business isn't free, it depends on the government, and so the government doesn't tell anyone not to advertise in the newspapers that don't praise it. But since all of the TV companies praise the government, they don't have that problem.

Why does the press have so little weight in Armenia that the government doesn't care about it?

Compared to TV, the print media is like a little mosquito bite for the government, because its circulation and its influence on society are so small.

Do the media, including the electronic and print media, shape public opinion in Armenia?

I think they do, if they set that goal for themselves. Obviously, the TV companies succeed more than the press. There are newspapers that want to shape public opinion and newspapers who don't. Aravot does not have that goal.

What is your goal then?

To inform. If people are interested in a certain piece of news or article, they buy our paper and read it.

Do you think that media in Armenia informs its readers or tries to be propaganda? How many "informative" newspapers can you list?

I don't know about the others, but our goal is to inform our readers.

Is there a media-reader connection? It's my impression that the media is less interested in satisfying its readers than its own financial demands. Today, more people in political and financial circles read newspapers than ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, that's so. You're probably right to bring this up. I won't talk about other papers since I think it's unethical, but in Aravot's case I assure you that it's not our objective to please or displease anyone, or praise or criticize anyone in those political and financial circles. In general, apart from the first three pages, we try to write about things that interest ordinary citizens, or that we think interest them. Maybe we don't cover the right things, or write well enough to interest them, but that's another question. It's not our objective to please anyone.

Mr. Abrahamyan, are there any themes that are taboo, or people who are untouchable for the press? How free is Aravot to discuss the issues that concern society, or the people who are at the center of attention?

Frankly, for me, there are some taboo topics, but it's not because people give me money or anything. For instance, I would be careful when writing about our army or the Church. But I'm not careful because Serge Sargsyan or Garegin II gives me money. Nevertheless, there is some restraint. And in general, there should be some restraint, especially towards institutions that do not belong to the current, former, or future governments, but rather belong to our nation.

What about the former government, by the way? The fact that Vano Siradeghyan founded Aravotmeans that somehow the newspaper is connected to the former government. Doesn't that hinder your objective of portraying Aravot as an objective source of information to your readers?

I've read those discussions in other newspapers, that Aravot is an ANM [Armenian National Movement] newspaper, but I don't think that our colleagues are being sincere when they write that. They don't believe it. In reality, when they don't have any arguments in response to an article, or don't want to come up with any, then they put that label on us because of the low rating that ANM has among the populace and the negative emotions that this abbreviation creates among the people. Go and ask the former government what they think about Aravot . You'll realize that their attitude is anything but positive.

What do you think about the fact that today the media is used as a tool to settle political and financial scores?

I don't like it, and if you've noticed, in the last ten years Aravot has never published any article which criticized or discredited any journalist or newspaper. I completely forbid getting into any argument with other media sources, no matter who started it. If someone comes to me with a response that some other paper has already turned down and says, "You print this," I decline, because Aravot does not get involved in arguments like that. Even when the issue is not political, I still decline.

Is that part of your newspaper's code of ethics? I think you have reservations when it comes to journalistic ethics. Does Aravot have any ethical principles, or unwritten moral rules?

No, I have no reservations at all. In life, there must be rules of ethics. We all somehow know that we shouldn't come to work in a swimsuit. This is an ethical standard, and similarly, the newspapers shouldn't call each other "stupid" or things like that. Of course, it's possible to make an agreement about that, but this should also be demanded by society. Just as the newspapers have little influence over society, so society has little influence over them, and as a result the papers are free to put labels on each other.

Let's talk about electronic media. Today there is a tendency toward media consolidation. New media holdings are taking shape. What do you think about this trend?

If you're talking about several TV companies being in the same hands, then it's illegal. But that's what's happening in reality. All the transmission frequencies have been divided among the TV companies, and in my opinion this was done in order to not give any frequency to "A1+". The number of these TV companies needs to decrease. On the other hand, I'm positive about media holdings that consist of TV, radio, and newspapers. But there aren't any yet in Armenia.

In your opinion does the media in Armenia participate in the political process? And if so, what role does it have?

If they want to, they do take part in it. We do not want to and do not participate. There are some media organizations that want to participate. TV companies, for instance, only take part if they praise Kocharyan. If they don't praise him, they are shut down. As for newspapers, it depends on their desire. Since Aravo t does not participate, I can't say anything about its influence on the political process.

Do publications in the media have any effect? Is it possible that because of what you print in your newspaper, there might be some change in the political system? Or maybe a corrupt official will be fired as a result of media investigations?

I don't believe that. I don't think that such a thing is possible now, and we shouldn't set ourselves such a goal. When the Washington Post journalists were investigating Nixon's secret affairs, they only wanted to discover the facts, and to increase their newspaper's sales by telling an interesting story. Their goal wasn't the Watergate scandal; they only wanted to uncover the facts.

How was the year 2004 for Aravot ? Are you satisfied with the results?

I am very dissatisfied with the results, because we did not increase our sales. That's the only number you can judge the year by. I work 14 hours a day for good results, but I guess I'm not doing a good job.

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