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Azatutyun Succeeds As Internet Pioneer In Armenia

Harry Tamrazian - -the director of RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, Radio Azatutyun -- is no spring chicken. A veteran journalist who covered the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union, Tamrazian is an unlikely face for the development of new media in contemporary Armenia. But this stalwart of traditional media, who has spent most of his career broadcasting the news from RFE/RL's radio studios, is now at the forefront of an innovative effort to bring the power of Web 2.0 technologies to the mountains and valleys of his native country.

"We don't want to be behind the curve," Tamrazian says. "We want to be ahead of it."

To that end, Tamrazian and Radio Azatutyun launched their own YouTube channel in late 2009 as part of an effort to expand their Internet reach and to provide more comprehensive video coverage of events inside Armenia. Feeling that visual media was becoming ever more important online, Tamrazian recruited a small crew with extensive video experience to operate out of Azatutyun's bureau in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

The channel proved to be an immediate hit, such that for several days in October 2010, it was the most popular YouTube channel among all non-profit operations worldwide, beating out even perennial YouTube favorites like TED. Tamrazian notes that it's a testament to the tremendous, unfilled niche that Radio Azatutyun stepped into. "There's a certain first-mover advantage that we had," Tamrazian says. To date, Radio Azatutyun's YouTube channel has broadcast its videos to over 1.7 million viewers in under two years--an especially impressive rate when one considers Armenia's population of 3.2 million.

Radio Azatutyun's newfound prowess with video has increasingly made it a popular source of footage for many of the country's regional television stations. Radio Azatutyun is often able to provide video coverage of political events or issues that are too sensitive for other outlets to cover directly. For local media that feel greater censorship pressure from state authorities, Tamrazian notes, RFE provides an invaluable shield: local journalists are able to say that they're merely rebroadcasting RFE's controversial material, rather than generating it on their own.

The tactic has become a popular one, and to fill the demand, Azatutyun makes its video footage available to Armenian television via an FTP server that stores the files in a variety of resolutions, including HD. "As a radio company," Tamrazian says with a grin, "it's nice to produce video of such quality that other news sources want it."

Driving Change

The explosive popularity of Azatutyun's video footage is directly related to its willingness to tackle otherwise taboo issues. A quick review of the station's most viewed videos attests to Azatutyun's role as a powerful force for investigative journalism. The station's original reports on abuses in the ranks of the Armenian military sparked a parlimentary investigation. Another piece uncovered the tragic story of a young man killed during a police interrogation, leading to a public apology by the chief of Armenia's national police and the arrest of the police officers involved in the killing.

Tamrazian also points out that Azatutyun also challenges its viewers by publicizing segments of society that are either underrepresented or hidden from public view for cultural reasons. He cites a special report showing how disabled Armenians can live active, successful lives, and says that the effort to increase visibility for the disabled is "one of the core elements of building tolerance" in Armenia.

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Radio Azatutyun's newfound talent with video has helped to make the station's Armenian-language website ( one of the foremost sources of news in the South Caucasus -- a forum that is impossible for the nation's politicians to ignore. One regular feature is a talk show called "The Crossroads of Opinion," which faces guests of varying political stripes against each other. The show frequently hosts politicians to be subjected to public grillings. Armenia's prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan, braved an appearance this year. "He knows we command a major audience," Tamrazian reasons. holds the politicians' feet to the fire in other ways, too: this week saw the website employ on its homepage an exclusive livestream of anti-government protests in Yerevan. Tamrazian says that Azatutyun's brand of incisive web journalism has stirred competition and driven innovation in Armenia's small media market.

The resulting process brings real social benefits--benefits that even government officials are prepared to acknowledge. On Azatutyun's 60th birthday in May, Prime Minister Sargsyan paid a visit to the radio's Yerevan office and gave Azatutyun's journalists credit for their work. "You try to expose problems that exist in Armenia, the goverment tries to respond to this criticism, and this dialogue is very useful for the country," the prime minister said.

-- Charlie Dameron and Kristyna Dzmuranova