Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Climate of Self-Censorship

Armenian television channels play to the tune of government and big business.
By Gegham Vardanian
In Armenian television today, the rules of news journalism are known to everybody. Journalists say it is a climate not of direct official control, but of pervasive self-censorship.

“Now everyone knows exactly what to do,” said journalist Tigran Paskevichyan. “There are entertainment programmes, music, films and so on, but no one thinks about public and political debate.”

If in Azerbaijan and Georgia the battle is happening now, in Armenia the crunch moment occurred four years ago when the politically independent A1 + television channel was taken off the air. Other stations took this as a signal to resign themselves to official control and exercise political caution.

A1 + was stripped of its broadcasting license on April 2, 2002. A week later, as human rights activists and journalists were rallying to the support of the station, 17 media outlets released a statement, in which they insisted that freedom of speech was not in any danger in Armenia.

“This statement was a public declaration of submission, in which the media said it was better to obey rather than find themselves in the position of А1+,” said Mesrop Movsesian, chairman of the company.

“After 2002, all the TV companies began to be afraid and everybody understood that there was a certain line along which they had to walk, and any step to the right or to the left would not be tolerated. Speaking figuratively, they could be shot without warning,” said Mesrop Harutyunian, a media expert with the Yerevan Press Club.

Most television channels are now extremely selective in their news coverage, ignoring opposition figures such as former parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian.

“For example, when visiting the French University, the foreign minister of France was accompanied by Arthur Baghdasarian, chairman of the university’s board of trustees,” said Harutyunian. “However, most TV reports were edited so as to avoid showing Artur Baghdasarian. This is straightforward censorship.”

A recent US State Department report summed this up, “The authorities continu[e] to maintain tight control over the state-owned Armenian Public Television and virtually all private channels, which are owned by businesspeople loyal to [Armenian president Robert] Kocharian and rarely air reports critical of his administration. Their reporters are believed to operate under editorial censorship.”

Television professionals say much of the pressure on them is informal and comes either directly from politicians or via the presidentially-appointed national television and radio commission.

Gegham Manukian, a member of parliament and consultant with Yerkir-Media television, said broadcasting bosses are invited now and then for informal meetings or dinners in the presidential residence.

“These are not meetings in the strict sense of the word, no instructions are given,” he said. “Actually, it is up to the leader himself to decide whether he will do this or that. Naturally, this will have an effect. But sometimes useful and important issues are also discussed there.”

Armenia has 61 television stations, of which 17 are in Yerevan. Many of them focus on children’s programming, culture or music. Several, such as ALM or Kentron TV, which now occupies the frequency once held by A1 +, are owned by wealthy businessmen.

Shamiram Aghabekian, deputy chairman of Armenia’s national television and radio commission, agreed to be interviewed by IWPR only on the condition that what she said was understood as her personal opinion. She conceded that television exercised self-censorship, but said this was normal.

“The owners of our TV companies are mostly very rich people - oligarchs,” she said. “They see that the authorities have created favourable conditions for them to do business, and, naturally, they don’t want a change of government. The current government suits the owners of television stations perfectly.”

Regional television channels are more vulnerable targets for the authorities because of their poor finances.

“We receive threats very frequently,” said the head of one regional station, who asked to be identified by the changed name, Baghdasar.

Regional television bosses say that Grigor Amalian, the chairman of the national television and radio commission, told them recently that they should rebroadcast the programmes of Kentron TV, which is owned by people associated with Armenia’s leading oligarch Gagik Tsarukian.

“Amalian said that he would not object to seeing Kentron TV broadcast in the regions and that they were ready to pay for this,” said Bagdasar. “We thought about it and asked for a very big price. They haven’t yet got back to us.”

Manukian said that money is a crucial part of the picture, as rich Armenians are able to buy up favourable airtime.

For example, in the last two months, most Armenian television channels broadcast a series of reports about a businessmen involved in politics, who was distributing seed potatoes and organising free medical consultation services in villages. The reports had the look of being paid advertising.

Journalist Tigran Paskevichyan said the convergence of commercial and political interests on Armenian television was having a corrosive effect.

“Who would pay money [to a television channel] and say, ‘Say what you want about poverty and the catastrophic situation in the regions of Armenia’? No one of course,” he said.

Gegham Vardanian is a reporter for Internews in Yerevan.

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