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CLASH OF PRINCIPLES? AIM-ArmeniaWeek Conflict Highlights the Contentious Role and Ownership of Media in Armenia PART I: INTERVIEW WITH TONY HALPIN AND JOHN HUGHES Armenian News Network / Groong November 14, 2002 By Groong Research & Analysis Group YEREVAN, ARMENIA For years the Armenian International Magazine (AIM), the Los Angeles-based monthly magazine, had claimed to represent virtually the only Armenian "free thinking and free press" (AIM, October 2001, p. 10). It claimed to be the champion of "an independent press vital to the development of a democratic society in Armenia and democratic institutions in the Diaspora" (ArmeniaWeek.com, 26 July 2002). AIM editor-publisher, Salpi H. Ghazarian, who had succeeded founding-editor Vartan Oskanian, who is the current Foreign Minister of Armenia, in the June 2001 issue wrote: "without competent or thorough articles on everything, neither Armenia nor Diaspora will begin to think and behave differently (AIM June 2001, p. 10). And in October 2001, she declared: "The board [of directors of the Fourth Millennium Society, the publishers of AIM] is committed to building free media in Armenia and the Diaspora, and in that growing effort, AIM continues to be an anchor" (AIM October 2001, p. 10). In her last editor's note, before taking up a position at the Foreign Ministry of Armenia, she introduced two "wonderful professionals": Tony Halpin, the new editor of AIM and John Hughes, the editor of the online ArmeniaWeek.com. She further explained: "This magazine's experience has demonstrated that there are terrific Armenian and non-Armenian professionals willing and able to take on the task of serving as honest mirrors. Two of these wonderful professionals are in Armenia now [Tony Halpin and John Hughes]. We're fortunate to have them both there" (AIM October 2001, p. 10). Why were these two wonderful professionals, who have a combined professional journalistic experience of 40 years in the US and the UK dismissed, and by the very powers who had characterized their mission as "the task of serving as honest mirrors", when indeed these honest mirrors in Armenia had achieved what AIM's publishers wanted them to be and were "fortunate to have them"? No details were given. Instead the publishers announced that Halpin and Hughes had "resigned" and restated their standard motto: "The Fourth Millennium Society is an independently funded and administered public charity committed to the dissemination of information for the purpose of developing an informed public, firm in the conviction that the vitality of an independent press is vital to the development of a democratic society in Armenia and democratic institutions in the Diaspora" (Armeniaweek.com 26 July 2002). The controversy at AIM has profound implications for media freedom and independence in Armenia. AIM has currently suspended publication. John Hughes is editing another online magazine in Yerevan, ArmeniaNow.com. Tony Halpin has returned to the UK. We asked Halpin and Hughes... [on August 30, 2002] GRAG: On July 26, in an Editor's Note, the publishers of AIM and ArmeniaWeek.com stated that you resigned from the editorship? What were the reasons of your resignation? TONY HALPIN: You have to break that down to two parts, I had two roles, one was AIM editor, and one was co-editor of armeniaweek with John. On June 30, John and I received an email from the publisher of AIM in L.A., Mike Nahabet, saying that he suspended the publication of AIM, and he had to reorganize and raise money, and that he needed three months to see how the future would be. We obviously had expected something to happen because we had had financial problems for some months. JOHN HUGHES: We did not hear anything until July 16th when Salpi [Ghazarian, former publisher of AIM] returned to the country and asked us to meet, and at that meeting she said that as far as AIM was concerned Tony would no longer be the editor, that he would be replaced by Hrair Sarkissian, and as far as ArmeniaWeek was concerned she was to take the role of editorial director, by which stories that were to appear on the web site would first be sent to her for her to see to make suggestions or corrections. It was not really clear but she had to see before they got published. HALPIN: These two decisions were not flagged out to us beforehand, actually they came completely out of the blue. HUGHES: Our immediate reaction and response was that having Salpi as editorial director was fine. But, Salpi becoming editorial director while also serving as an advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs struck us as a latent conflict of interest. It was just unacceptable, as far as trying to maintain an independent source of news. HALPIN: Part of what we've been doing in the last months, and John even earlier, is to make journalists understand their role in the society, and the continuous complaint here is that the media is in somebody's pocket. As we told Salpi we had no beef her being editorial director at all, we have worked together for years and we respect what she does. I told her and I told the staff that in case she wanted to sit in our office 40 hours a week we would be perfectly happy. But she could not do that and be governmental advisor, it was a clear conflict of interest there and compromise of the perceived independence of the publication, whether she changed anything or not because people outside would think that things are being written to serve a certain agenda. HUGES: It is worth emphasizing here that for the rest of the media here this parting of ways is a matter of principle. I am not ready to accuse anybody here of having ulterior motives, for me it is very simple: the directors of Fourth Millennium wanted to put in place a policy that I objected to in principle. Now my reaction to that could have been to leave town and forget about it, or to stay here and continue doing what we have been doing. The reason I decided to stay is simply because of the staff that we have trained to honor the principles that would be violated by the new conditions. There are some rumors saying that we did this to try to put some distance between Salpi and us so that people get the impression that we are not working together while we are. Complete nonsense. There were five or six articles published on us in the last six weeks, but only one journalist came to talk to us (laughing). GRAG: For years the Diaspora has been concerned about independence of the media in Armenia as well as control of information by the powerful and the state. Now a Diaspora publication, which has for years claimed to champion objectivity and freethinking has fallen into the same mould. How do you analyze this situation? HALPIN: Here is the thing that continues to mystify me. I simply don't know the answer. No one explained to neither of us why this was necessary, and how it would in anyway be beneficial. GRAG: Then why do you think Salpi did that? What is your speculation? HUGHES: I believe that Salpi has good intentions, and it makes sense to her. She thinks she can wear both hats, that of a journalist and an official. I think those two things were bound to collide. There is no conspiracy on our part, and I think there is no conspiracy on her part. She wanted to take control over the information that appeared on that website. Now whether that was to enhance information for the Diaspora or whether it was to have planned for the government is anybody's guess. HALPIN: I have no answer. Anybody who knew either of us would know that they would have got the reaction they got. That being the case, the outcome is not the one which was desired. GRAG: Fine, Salpi calculated one step, did she calculate the second step? HUGHES: We had a second meeting with her on July 17. We stated our objections and the reasons why, and I can't believe that after that meeting it was unclear that we were on opposite sides on that issue. HALPIN: If you have two opposite views one has to give in. And since she brought me here and John here to do this work and now wanted to do the work in a different way, we had to go. GRAG: You have worked with AIM for years, and you knew that Salpi was a very close colleague of Vartan Oskanian, the current minister of foreign affairs. How did things change now? HALPIN: Let me make a distinction. At that time, Salpi was the editor of AIM, that was Salpi's editorial decision. If I am the editor, then I have to make my decisions. So, these decisions you make as individuals. HUGHES: We knew Salpi was close to the foreign ministry, but there was never a time when anything I wrote was edited, changed or censored, or turned the story to be more favorable to the government. GRAG: Do you think that the fact that you moved to live in Yerevan changed the way you are perceiving Armenia and writing about it? Could this be a reason for the conflict? HUGHES: I think you are maybe at the root of what may have to do with some of this. I think there is a difference between what the Diaspora wants, and the reality of this place. And if you are trying to reflect the environment in which you are living, it is necessarily going to conflict somebody else's idea of what that reality is. Truly I think that Salpi's intention is to serve Diaspora rather than Armenia. At one point she objected to something that I wrote, I defended what I had written saying that I was reflecting the community I was living in, and she said: "We are not here to reflect this community. The local newspapers could do that. Our purpose is to serve a different audience and take a different viewpoint". GRAG: [To JOHN HUGHES] It seems that your criticism of the Cafesjian Foundation, a major donor to AIM and Armeniaweek.com, was seen as a line that you should have not crossed, as indicated by the responses that were published subsequently. Was this a "mistake" on your part, or it is a matter of principle? HUGHES: With hindsight I see it from the beginning. Mr. Cafesjian has the right to do whatever he wants to do with his money. What I criticized him for was for interfering in what ought to be the democratic process, to make it more convenient to him to do what he wants to do here. That was a point of contention between me and a lot of people. GRAG: Including Salpi? HUGHES: Yes. GRAG: Was Mr. Cafesjian financially supporting Armeniaweek at that moment? HUGHES: No. Hadn't been for a year. Let me make this clear. I never got a penny from Cafesjian Foundation. Even when he gave money to the media project which precedes the website, it was not money that covered the salaries of people working on the project. Otherwise I would look ungrateful, taking someone's money and then criticize him. That was not the case. I did not criticize what he was doing with his money but the way he allowed himself at the government to do what he wants to do. HALPIN: What was interesting about that particular piece was that the website got a lot of critical mail from people living in the Diaspora. That if someone wants to spend 25 million dollars this way it could only benefit Armenia. But here within the country we had lot of people coming up to John saying how much they agree to what was written. It was a very clear example of the different perceptions of people inside and outside the country. A part of what we hoped the website to achieve was to give a better researched picture of Armenia to those living outside so that they could make a more informed decisions about how to get involved in this country. GRAG: Did your coverage of the trial of the presidential bodyguard who had killed Mr. Poghos Poghosian, criticizing the authorities, have any impact. HALPIN: It never came up in discussions. HUGHES: We didn't get anybody saying a great job. HALPIN: It is obviously a controversial issue. Before my dismissal from AIM there was a background noise of complaint saying that I was making AIM too negative. If you look at the magazine it is easy to refute that. HUGHES: I went back and counted the stories, and the positive stories to negative ones was three to one. Overwhelmingly AIM still had a higher number of "positive". We were getting comments that the magazine was better than anytime, that it was coming out in time. That is why we had a severe shock to hear that Tony was fired. GRAG: When you came here to work on the web project, which was later supposed to become a newspaper, did you realize that you were entering the political arena? Did you discuss questions like its independence, or its political line? HALPIN: No, because Salpi was supposed to head it, and it was only clear to me that she was going to work for the foreign ministry after our arrival here. HUGHES: The recent developments could be made this simply: somebody even with a relatively unknown agenda had collided with journalists who have no agenda, but do not want to be part of somebody else's agenda. Responsible journalism stops at the point where government officialdom starts. GRAG: Let's go back to AIM. It was trying to bring a new voice to the Armenian community media at least in the States. It declared itself to be professional, objective, independent. On this basis it made fundraising, and according to our information, it received over a million dollars over a decade, and from subscriptions and advertisements, it should have made $350,000 a year. When you count the name of editors and contributors, there are over 35 people there. Still, it was always unable to take off. Why? HALPIN: Probably 30 of those are dormant. AIM was always produced by a small group of committed people, working long hours for very little reward. If you ask about its state of objectives and whether it achieved them, I think it did better than any publication in the Diaspora. I think AIM has done a pretty good job within the limits of what it could do. It was always a mystery for me why AIM did not have a hundred thousand subscribers. With a million Armenians in the US, plus Canada, Australia, it should have had a circulation big enough to sustain the costs. AIM never reached that point. That has meant the additional stress of continuing fundraising. HUGHES: The mystery to me is that we saw AIM's problem was a financial problem. One thing people were pleased about was that the magazine was getting better, improving its content. Yet Salpi saw the need, rather than the need to address the financial problem, to address what she saw an editorial problem. GRAG: Could you tell us about the financial side of ArmeniaNow.com, the new internet publication you have started? What kind of money made it possible for you to go this far? HUGHES: It did not need much. Because unlike the magazine it's not a high priced publication. Tony and I are not being paid anyway. What we needed was some money for the equipment, and to pay our staff. Private donors made that possible. GRAG: Any names? HUGHES: We haven't asked them if it's OK. HALPIN: Thus far we just had two donors. We are trying to seek a grant support because we want to avoid getting into the situation we were before, relying on private donors. HUGHES: We made an appeal to people who had good things to say about our work before. We explained them that we were going to start a new office and wanted to continue our work. And they agreed to give us some start up money. HALPIN: They gave the money because of personal relationship. GRAG: You know it is election time in Armenia. Do they have any business interests here? HALPIN: No, no, no. Really not. GRAG: Thank you very much for the interview. * * * * * TOMORROW: Our interview with Salpi Ghazarian.