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Armenia: The Murky Business Of Media Funding

By Ruzanna Khachatrian

After 12 years of overall press freedom, Armenia's print media continue to grapple with serious economic difficulties, which remain the greatest obstacle to their independence. The vast majority of Armenian newspapers rely on the politically motivated assistance of wealthy individuals to stay afloat. As RFE/RL reports, that kind of sponsorship takes its toll on the objectivity and quality of news reporting.

Yerevan, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL -- Armenian Service) -- Aram Abrahamian needs an extra $3,500 each month to be a happy man. That amount of money, says the editor of "Aravot" (Morning), would spare one of Armenia's leading newspapers the headache of scrambling for funds to pay for its printing and other production costs.

That is quite a sum for the newspaper, whose net monthly revenues from sales and advertising do not exceed $10,000.

Where does Abrahamian hope to get such money? "From political, official, and business circles. Unfortunately, things are now not so good that I can get the entire sum from one source each month and live comfortably. I have to beg for the money," Abrahamian said.

Abrahamian's woes are typical for the vast majority of Armenian newspapers, which are far from being self-sufficient, let alone profitable. Their main preoccupation is how to close budget gaps arising from their poor commercial performance. Recourse to so-called "sponsors," their editors admit, is the most common way of staying afloat.

But that tactic, as one Western, media watchdog group put it recently, leaves Armenia's print media "at the mercy of government officials and wealthy sponsors."

No wonder that most publications have little incentive to improve the quality of their reporting, which still leaves much to be desired after 12 years of overall press freedom. Nor do they see an urgent need to become truly commercial by attracting more readers and advertisers. Most Armenian newspapers have extremely low circulations.

One newspaper claims to have emerged from this quagmire, however. The "Iravunk" (Right) biweekly, which is close to a small opposition party, prints the highest number of copies per issue: 15,000. It tends to present news from a leftist and somewhat nationalist perspective. Hovannes Galajian is its editor-in-chief. "Our main source of revenues is sales. That is followed by advertising. In normal economic conditions, it should be the other way around," Galajian said.

Such claims of self-sufficiency are dismissed as "fairy tales" by Gagik Mkrtchian, the editor of the "Hayots Ashkhar" (Armenian World) daily, a staunch advocate of Armenian President Robert Kocharian. "All newspapers have sponsors. One paper could cover 30 percent of its costs, another one 50 percent. But unfortunately, no media outlet can survive without sponsors," Mkrtchian said.

Mkrtchian did not deny that his newspaper is funded by Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, Kocharian's most powerful associate. And "Hayots Ashkhar" is not the only publication with which Sarkisian has had links.

Abrahamian stunned many in 1999 when he revealed that "Aravot" had been funded by the minister for the previous two years. He said the payments began in 1997 when Sarkisian was serving as national security minister in the administration of then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, whom "Aravot" had always supported.

The liberal daily has never forgiven Kocharian and his allies for forcing Ter-Petrosian to step down in February 1998, hence its hard-hitting coverage of the current regime.

Abrahamian said that if the powerful defense chief offers to resume funding, he will "think" before accepting or rejecting the money. "Taking money for publishing a newspaper is the same as taking a stone for hewing. I don't see anything bad in it," Abrahamian said.

His comments are echoed by Nikol Pashinian, the young editor of "Haykakan Zhamanak" (Armenian Time), another leading pro-opposition daily. One of the country's best-selling periodicals, it prints only 3,500 copies a day to keep costs down. Pashinian said that 20 percent of the newspaper's costs are covered by "business circles," which he refuses to name. He says his sponsors do not decide on the content of the newspaper because they only want to "promote liberal values" in Armenia.

Armenia boasts seven national dailies, two biweeklies and two weeklies, which among them offer a broad range of opinion. All but one are privately owned, belonging to their editors, staff, or political parties. At least six of them support Kocharian, despite occasionally criticizing some government policies. Their average print run is between 4,000 and 5,000, which is the main reason why they are unattractive to major advertisers. The latter prefer to deal with regional and national television stations that have far bigger audiences and are more profitable.

Businesspeople who give cash to Armenian newspapers seem to be doing so for political considerations. Those who have close government connections are simply told by their political patrons to help the pro-presidential media.

Things are less certain in the case of pro-opposition media funding. The money appears to come mainly from opposition politicians or their cronies involved in business. This is especially true of "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak." The editors of these newspapers complain that many entrepreneurs are wary of placing advertisements in anti-Kocharian publications for fear of government retribution.

"They are sponsoring us because we are saying what they can't say [openly]. In Armenia, the authorities can ruin any business within half an hour," Pashinian said.

Gurgen Arsenian of the Arsoil petrol company and Khachatur Sukiasian, the owner of the SIL group, are thought to be among those businessmen. Both men built their fortunes under the former regime and are now independent members of the Armenian parliament. They admit "helping" some media, but deny having any political agendas, except the promotion of "liberal ideas."

Sukiasian, who is one of Armenia's wealthiest persons, claims that publications with different political orientations frequently turn to him for assistance and that he never refuses them.

But such assistance comes at a cost. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the CPJ, the severe financial constraints are limiting the influence and independence of the Armenian media. "Dire economic conditions proved to be the greatest obstacle for the independent media in Armenia," the CPJ said in its annual report on press freedom in Armenia, released in March. As a result, the report concluded, Armenian journalists "censored themselves and slanted their reporting in exchange for the financial support of wealthy patrons."

The closure in April of the main independent A1+ television station only exacerbates the dire media situation in Armenia. The existence of A1+ was a rare example of an Armenian media outlet achieving self-sufficiency through objective and unbiased reporting.

The station, which was often critical of the authorities, lost its broadcast frequency to an entertainment company in a move that was criticized in the opposition media for being politically motivated. Kocharian has denied any interference in the frequency bidding.