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Armenian TV's Split Personality

Former state organ Armenia Public TV is the sparring ground between presidential and governmental camps.
By Ara Tadevosian
Armenia's former state TV has found itself a battleground for rival political factions. Caught in the midst of an incomplete transition from state to public broadcaster, the station is being pulled between a government still wishing to use it as a mouthpiece and journalists still expecting preferential treatment from officials.



Although formally public, the TV's council is selected by the president, which gives him de facto control over policy. The president rivals, including the prime minister, are seeking other forms of leverage over the station to bolster their own political platforms.



The latest problem arose in July. According to the head of the government's press office, reflecting the views of the prime minister, Mary Arutjunian, a correspondent from Armenia TV's Aylur news programme approached her asking for access to a closed governmental session.



"I told her that she wouldn't be treated any differently from other journalists," said Arutjunian. The journalist, Lilit Sedrakian, took umbrage at what she perceived as a sleight and promptly replied that the government could expect what it deserved in her coverage of the story.



The correspondent lived up to her word, airing what Arutjunian called an "uncivilised" programme. "It is unacceptable to use public TV for quarrelling," she said. Sedrakian had made a report criticising the government's press office and singling Arutjunian out for vitriolic treatment.



The executive director of the TV station, Armen Arzumanian, quickly responded to defend his staff, arguing that the press office's snub had been politically motivated.



Arzumanian's colleague, Tigran Nagdalian, the chairman of the public TV council, which directs the station's policy, agreed. "We see this incident as an attempt to subject public television to indirect censorship," he wrote in an open letter to Prime Minister Andranik Margarian.



"The transition from state to public TV has always been resisted by the authorities. Now policy is being pushed by low-ranking officials who [should] perform mere mechanical functions in the state's information policy," he said. He called on the prime minister to intervene directly in the affair.



In fact, it was President Robert Kocharian who then took the initiative. On August 13, he told the station's management that, from now on, they could expect unlimited access to governmental sessions.



Yet this move has hardly settled the matter. How far the quarrel is based on interpretations of press freedom and how far on personal power battles remains unclear.



"The conflict has nothing to do with the violation of the right to access information," said David Petrosian of Yerevan's Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations.



Petrosian sees it as an internal struggle between the government press office and the station. As a public media outlet, the station had no right to demand "special working conditions and Arutjunian was perfectly within her rights to deny access to closed sessions of the government," he said. "Having presidential support, the television council launched an attack on its opponents in government."



The seeds of the clash between the president and the prime minister lie in the arrest last year of Arutjin Arutjunian, then deputy head of the nationalised station, in connection with the shootings carried out in the Armenian parliament in 1999.



Arutjunian was released for lack of evidence of any complicity in the affair. But Petrosian believes animosity was sown between the station and the current prime minister, Margarian, who was even then a strong opponent of President Kocharian.



When Margarian demanded that the public TV council chairman, Nagdalian, resign over the affair for defending his colleague, Nagdalian screamed political censorship. His ally, the president, managed to convince enough deputies to stop pressing for Nagdalian's resignation. The lobbying worked, but ever since, Nagdalian has had it out for Margrarian.



In public Nagdalian says that his interests in asking for Margrarian's dismissal are purely in the interests of journalistic freedoms.



The newspaper Aykakan Zhamanak says that it is ridiculous to talk about freedom of speech and journalists' rights when the TV station is evidently still under the sway of the president. The paper recalled an incident when one of its journalists was barred from attending a meeting of the presidential human rights commission - and the station was the only major media outlet not to report the incident.



"Armenian Public TV will remain pro-government as long as its management is appointed by the president," said the head of the Armenian Helsinki Association, Mikhael Danielian.



The bitter exchange between the spokeswoman and the fiery TV journalist has, for the moment, died down. But until a private broadcasting network emerges, the core problem of having a former state organ hold a monopoly over national news will remain.



Ara Tadevosian is the director of the Mediamax news agency.