by Julia Hakobyan, Special from ArmeniaNow.com
When Armenia gained independence 12 years ago, mass media took a special role in forming public opinion about social, economic and political events in the country.
Today, however, few analysts, observers, or even professional journalists believe the media in Armenia kept its mission to be a link between the citizenry and its government.
Like other post-Soviet countries media in Armenia experienced numerous economic and professional obstacles. The result is a media that is free, mostly, of State control, but owned, manipulated and controlled by political factions or special interest clans.
The result for the public is that it has little faith in, or respect for, the news it gets either in print or electronically.
In May, 2001, ProMedia, a United States government-contracted journalism training agency, conducted a nationwide survey and found that 96.8 percent of the population does not believe what it hears, sees or reads from mass media.
"Armenia has a free media, but not an independent media," says former ProMedia director and journalist Peter Eichstaedt. "Special interests and the government sponsor all the various print and electronic media. Until that situation is resolved and until the news media is independently financed Armenia is not going to have a free and independent media."
After four years and more than $1 million of investments in "media strengthening", ProMedia itself gave up the fight in Armenia. It discontinued its program in August, but not before learning that while editors were very willing to accept grants, equipment, and U.S.-financed training trips abroad, few if any implemented changes in their content or methodology.
Internews, a U.S.-sponsored agency that is the electronic equivalent of ProMedia is also pulling out next year.
"There is a definite frustration among U.S. government officials due to the lack of progress toward financial independence and increased professionalism on the part of the news media," Eichstaedt says.
Last winter's presidential elections illustrated that media in Armenia is divided into two irreconcilable camps: opposition and pro-government. Both groups follow mandates of self-preservation over objectivity and resort to methods that conceal or distort information, according to political and economic expediency. Some in Armenia even point to the polarized media factions as evidence that Armenia does have an independent press, arguing that both the government and the opposition is represented.
It is a country about the size of the tiny U.S. state of Delaware, yet there are some 50 television companies in Armenia. (Ten are the most influential, while the rest have small audiences on regional channels).
Armenia has eight major daily newspapers (and several small, sporadically-published ones). There are 18 radio companies. And there are 10 associations for journalists.
Vicken Cheterian, director of the Caucasus Media Institute, a Swiss-sponsored media development academy, doubts if a country the size of Armenia needs so many media outlets.
"For all that, there is pluralism," Cheterian says. "People don't know whom to believe."
Cheterian further says that because Armenian journalism is politicized, journalists write and broadcast for politicians, for other journalists or for their sponsors; they do not serve ordinary people, the citizens of Armenia or Diaspora Armenians.
"If you want to get information on any event you have to read both pro governmental and oppositional newspapers, then compare it, then analyze it to understand what really happened," Cheterian says. "And even after that you would not know what was truth, and what was fiction. There is no source you can rely on."
Cheterian shares the opinion that the quality and usefulness of media in Armenia could be transformed if journalists reported more news for the interests of society.
"Armenians love to remember with nostalgia the great lands that they once had. But look around at the lands that we preserved," Cheterian says, by way of example. "The whole shore of Lake Sevan is in garbage as well as the river gorges and the city.
"The journalists should pay more attention to public problems. They are the only link that ties the people with their government and they should realize the importance of their mission."
But as with other professional disciplines in the struggling country, idealism yields to practical survival and even journalists are motivated by economic necessity.
Vardan Aloyan, editor-in-chief of the State newspaper Republic of Armenia, says his and other publications face a two-edge sword. Aloyan's journalists make about $70 or $80 per month. The newspaper gets 30 percent of its funding from the State budget and the rest from advertising.
"On the one hand my publication needs qualified professionals to produce a good, informative product," he says. "On the other hand it does not have money to hire professionals."
A common practice that troubles champions of independent media is the "ordered" story. In other words, a government official or other powerful source pays a newspaper to publish a story that serves his interests—often at the expense of an adversary.
Tigran Harutyunyan, the Director of Noyan Tapan News Agency, says he is concerned about the "ordered" story phenomenon, but equally troubled by the malaise that the present environment creates. Harutyunyan insists that his agency is one of the few independent outlets in Armenia, which managed to be self-financing due to ads, subscriptions and its Internet edition.
"Some journalists don't adequately cover events not because of the fear or ideological principals, but rather out of habit," Harutyunyan says. "They do not wish to have problems even if in some cases they are not sure if problems would appear with their publication."
The American journalist/administrator Eichstaedt agrees with Harutyunyan's observation.
"There's not an overt censorship, but clearly self-imposed censorship," he says. "Newspapers and television journalists know exactly what they can print or broadcast or cannot, without generating sometimes-violent response from the government or powerful government figures."