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Armenia: Media Uproar Over Kiosk Sell-off
The government has postponed the privatisation of hundreds of newspaper kiosks after stormy objections from editors who claimed the move would be a death-sentence for their titles.
The sell-off, which some analysts argued was required to shake up a complacent industry, was supposed to be completed by January 15.
The 306 kiosks earmarked for privatisation are the property of the state newspaper distribution agency Aimamul (often known by its Russian name Armpechat). The agency has run up huge debts and says it will use the sell-off to pay the 270,000 US dollars, which it owes to Armenian printing houses.
However, many newspaper editors fear the move would make a chaotic distribution system even worse. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, newspaper sales have plummeted in Armenia and most titles are not delivered outside Yerevan. The combined daily print-run of all the titles in the republic is now a mere 50,000 copies.
According to Boris Navasardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club, the main reasons for poor sales are poverty and an insufficient number of outlets.
Navasardian said the privatisations would cause turmoil in the newspaper market, disrupt distribution and cut sales even further. Flora Nakhshkarian, editor of the daily Voice of Armenia agreed. "Although it doesn't work particularly well, it is only the ready-made distribution system that has stopped many papers from going under," she said.
The state property minister, David Vartanian, failed to reassure the editors, when he said it didn't "matter whether the kiosks sell newspapers or vodka, if the newspapers were up to standard, the sellers would give them shelf space instead of vodka".
Other commentators argue that Armenian newspapers only have themselves to blame if they are not selling well. Sales figures suggest that the livelier opposition titles pick up more readers than their duller government rivals, much of whose print-run is simply returned to the publishers unsold.
For example, the four opposition newspapers sell about 20,000 copies a day or twice what their more official counterparts achieve.
About 45 per cent of the daily run of the government paper Aiastani Anrapetutsiun, which is entirely state-financed, remains unsold. Yerkir, the mouthpiece of the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party, which supports President Kocharian, sells about 40 per cent of its print run, or about 2,500 copies a day. Yet these titles continue to put out the same amount of copies every day.
Recently, an Armenian television programme began broadcasting summaries of the content of pro-government newspapers, which are not being bought at the newsstands.
Media analyst Mark Grigorian says the reason papers remain unsold has more to do with their quality than their price. "As in all post-Soviet countries, there is a myth in Armenia that papers aren't selling because people can't afford to buy them," he said. "Yes, people are hard up, but the reason they are not buying newspapers is not because they're poor but because the papers are not interesting and the information they contain is untrustworthy."
Grigorian said that privatising kiosks would probably give their owners a more commercial outlook and they would end up stocking the more popular papers.
"Many of our newspapers exist as part of the shadow economy and are afraid to put themselves at the mercy of the real commercial market," he said . "Aimamul must force them into the real economy, which they know will not be profitable for them."
Susanna Petrosian works for the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.
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