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CLASH OF PRINCIPLES? AIM-ArmeniaWeek Conflict Highlights the Contentious Role and Ownership of Media in Armenia PART II: INTERVIEW WITH SALPI H. GHAZARIAN Armenian News Network / Groong November 15, 2002 By Groong Research & Analysis Group YEREVAN, ARMENIA For years the Armenian International Magazine (AIM), the Los Angeles-based monthly magazine, claimed to represent virtually the only Armenian "free thinking and free press" (AIM, October 2001, p. 10). It declared itself 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, wrote in the June 2001 issue: "without competent or thorough articles on everything, neither Armenia nor the 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, the web version of AIM. 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 had achieved in Armenia 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). AIM has currently suspended publication. The controversy at AIM has profound implications for media freedom and independence in Armenia. We asked Salpi H. Ghazarian, Tony Halpin and John Hughes to explain the circumstances regarding their disagreements. The Halpin and Hughes interview was posted yesterday. Below is the interview with Salpi Ghazarian [October 18, 2002]. GRAG: Is it possible to have a free media in Armenia and the Diaspora based on donations coming from the United States? SALPI H. GHAZARIAN: If we accept that there is nothing - no such thing - as "absolute free," there is your opinion or approach. The whole world is like that. Is Le Monde free? If we mean independent, there is no such thing as independent media without financial independence. And yet it is possible to be independent with donations that are regular and predictable. There are plenty of publications like that in the world, including the majority of American publications that are based on donations and endowments. GRAG: AIM has not been published since June. One assumes there is a crisis situation. What is its background? GHAZARIAN: AIM's financial situation. More than half of AIM's finances depended on donations. And since I left, donations went down significantly; also, the political and economic situation in the US has decreased donations. It is the combination of these two things. GRAG: Is the problem only financial, or also a crisis in management? Or Editorial line? GHAZARIAN: Believe me it is not. We have an editorial team, and a number of articles. The reason why it is not being published is a financial issue. GRAG: Do you believe that you could work for the Armenian government AND be engaged in the development of a free media in Armenia and the diaspora? GHAZARIAN: Ideally, and practically, it would be best not to do both things. AIM's situation today shows that practically it is not possible to do both. Ideally too it is best not to do both things. I might do a good job, but reality and perception get mixed, whatever the reality is. However, until there is a solid and permanent funding for AIM I have the responsibility of keeping that part my activities going. Which is essentially what I have done since last year, since I started working with the government. I work with the government, not for it. GRAG: What is the difference? GHAZARIAN: I am a volunteer person at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I'm not going to be an ambassador next year or something like that. I am not pursuing a career here. GRAG: When you talked to John Hughes and Tony Halpin on the 16th of July 2002, that you will take editorial control... GHAZARIAN: Are you asking me what I said or telling me what I said? GRAG: What reaction did you expect? GHAZARIAN: What I said is that they had been clamouring for greater Salpi involvement for a year. They wanted greater Salpi participation. I [had stepped back] for a bunch of reasons, including giving them the space to make the publication their own, and because the publication looked too much Salpi associated (for better or for worse). Some things had become clear to me: in case there was a need for an editorial input, I would like that editorial input before, i.e. ahead of time -- I did not say editorial control and I did not say editorial direction. [If] I have time to respond, I will, if I don't, I will not. But I don't want to be in a position afterwards to say that important mistakes could have been prevented. [For example,] I do not want to be in a position to say that Armenia does not have the death penalty since 1991 [after an article on it is published]; that is wrong! In essence, a year after they asked for it, I said "yeah" I want some sort of involvement. I've been their editor for many years -- one for ten years, the other for six. I haven't controlled, and I haven't, in that titled position, changed things without their knowledge. I wasn't going to do that now. GRAG: On the 16th of July, according to what they said, you told Tony Halpin that he was no longer the Editor in Chief of AIM, and that you wanted to see the articles before they were published. GHAZARIAN: No, I said exactly what I told you just now: that I wanted to be part of the editorial process. So that if I have any input into the subject, the who and the how, I'd like to have it in the beginning. You take it, you do; you don't take it, you don't. [If] I have time I do; if I don't, I will not. That's as simple as it was. GRAG: They told you their concerns regarding your double function, and the perception from outside. And, they told you their concerns the next day, but you kept your line. Wasn't it clear that if you kept your standpoint, they would quit? GHAZARIAN: They could have had the decency to say so if that was their intention. In any case, I still believe that what I said, what they interpreted and understood, and what they have publicly said, don't add up to the same thing. We have worked together for five to ten years. I do not understand how a year after they say Salpi should be involved more, and I come and say OK, they change. How that request translates in one month to political concerns from the top, and to making that kind of public statements, is not just ingenuous, it is unfair, and untrue. If there is one place in the government-media relationship, where the media tries to stand on its own, despite government contacts (and I don't mean government contacts through Salpi and the Foreign Ministry), it was AIM. Our major donors are the same: people who give to the government, and people who give to AIM, are the people who are somehow involved in Armenia. If we have managed in fact all these years to keep our hands clean and away from political directions, and Tony and John know this more than any other as they've been in the middle of it, for them to publicly say that this is the result of government control is unfair and damages the small part of the process that was very fragile but was somehow working. The evidence of all this is in everything that was on ArmeniaWeek for a year. There were articles that I imagine some people in the government were not happy with, from the stories John and Tony told, there were people who had complaints. But nobody ever bothered to pick up the phone and say to anybody, to me or to them, "take this off." To know that that has been your experience for one year here online, and ten years in print, and then to have to justify your need to leave for whatever reason, as a political reason, is at the very least not fair to the media process. It is hard enough without that accusation. GRAG: At least you understand the position of John and Tony when they say that they do not want to be seen working for a publication in which there is a person taking decisions who is linked to the government. GHAZARIAN: I understand that. I never said that is what I intended to do. This is the part which is very difficult to understand and justify. The perceptions from outside would be no different from what it is now. People now think that Salpi has something to do with the editorial process; they always have. John and Tony know what the reality has been, that Salpi's editorial involvement has been minimal or nil, and what Salpi was asking for was the opportunity to have content involvement at a point in the process where it would matter. She did not choose to take it, which has always been their option. I do not understand how that has suddenly changed. GRAG: Why this crisis now? GHAZARIAN: I'm too old to be surprised, but I don't know. GRAG: Was it a problem of communication between you? GHAZARIAN: If it is, all three of us are in the communication business, so we've done a lousy job. I considered them friends. I respect their journalistic abilities. I resented the way they manipulated the situation to give it a political tone. However I am still willing to believe that they did it for whatever principled reason they think there is. And I am willing to let it be, two products, three products, whatever. Armenia needs them all, and let the readers judge for themselves. GRAG: It has been months after the event now. From your perspective, did you make any mistakes? GHAZARIAN: Apparently for them the events started on the 16th of July, but the actual events took place on the 22nd. At a staff meeting, they announced three major things: A) their decision to leave, B) to take the staff with them, and C) to start a new website. All in the course of one and a half-hours. Were there mistakes from my side? I am still at a loss to try to explain what happened. GRAG: I was told that at the time you had the discussion they were not paid for 5-6 months: GHAZARIAN: In John's case three, in Tony's case 5 or 6. GRAG: In Armenia this could sound normal, but for someone from California, and another from London, this is quite a difficult situation. They were undertaking serious sacrifices being here, and yet not being paid for months. Considering these circumstances, coming and telling them the changes, what kind of reaction would you have expected? GHAZARIAN: Regarding the ArmeniaWeek part, I still think I told them what they wanted to hear all along during the year. I cannot explain or understand the ArmeniaWeek part of their reaction. The AIM part I understand. AIM has great legitimacy in the community, it is respected, and being the editor of AIM is a privileged position. I understand all of that. I also understand that Tony was upset; he later said that he was upset. But it had become evident for the last 5-6 months that either I had calculated wrong, that Tony in fact would have the time and energy that both AIM and ArmeniaWeek required, or that it was harder to deal with both ArmerniaWeek and AIM. But in either case, in order to continue the support that AIM always enjoyed, the magazine had to stand on its own, and to continue to get better -- especially if you were telling the world, look we have an editorial team of fifteen or twenty people here being trained, and that these are not two separate products but one. If we were going to sell this product, AIM had to get better. In order to do that, as I said, I still don't know how it would have worked. Perhaps he could have continued to be the editor, but not be in charge of the editorial process. GRAG: I understand that. But from the previous interview I also understand that you did not say, "Hey Tony, this is the problem, what kind of solution could we find, together." GHAZARIAN: We had talked about it a couple of times before that. GRAG: So, he was not supposed to be shocked? GHAZARIAN: Perhaps he was shocked at the fact that it was decided and announced. But the reality of the problem that AIM needed more attention and growing should not have been surprising. GRAG: Tony said, "These two decisions, they came completely out of the blue." GHAZARIAN: If he said this then I believe him. If your question is: was this the first time the question was discussed? Then no. GRAG: By July 16th, were there any articles in AIM/ArmeniaWeek that caused you difficulties with funders? GHAZARIAN: There were stories, which I thought were journalistically bad, but that is a different question. The reason I am answering that way to this question is because I heard it from them as well that there were articles which funders didn't like, and that Salpi was under pressure to let them go. That is absolutely wrong. GRAG: There were some articles in the Armenian press on ArmeniaWeek after John and Tony had left. How do you qualify them? GHAZARIAN: I did not pay much attention to them. There was one article I reacted to, in the Yerevan Press Club newsletter, which was their (John and Tony's) press release, published as fact. They said: this is what happened! And I am in the same town and I have a phone number. When I wrote back and said: here, I have a phone number, they told me: "You did not refute it." It is hilarious to think about [this type of] journalism. GRAG: From the side of AIM/ArmeniaWeek, did you make a good job of communicating this crisis? GHAZARIAN: I am of two minds on this. I think that, in the real world, publications have staff, staff comes, staff goes, new ones get started, etc. In the end, it's the reader who decides. Now in Armenia, where [the open] media is new, should we have explained some of this? My fear is that in the Armenian world, issues are reduced to what he said and what she said and so forth. I do not want to participate in that. I still would prefer that people judge the product and see what it is. If people ask, I tell them. Have we done a good job of explaining AIM's financial situation to the public? No, we have not done a good job in that. Largely because there is still an urge for a lasting answer. People see a glossy magazine and expect that it should be financially viable, so every two or three years it is difficult to make them understand the situation without their knowledge of either journalism or the Armenian marketing world. So when we come up with a solid proposed answer, a letter goes out to the readers, but it is very hard to go through the same process every couple of years. GRAG: When do you think we will be able to "judge the product" this time? GHAZARIAN: What do you mean? GRAG: I mean when are we going to see AIM or ArmeniaWeek again? GHAZARIAN: With AIM it depends largely on funding: if readers and donors together come through, then we hope to have a magazine in January. It depends largely on the donor situation. ArmeniaWeek is dependent on how AIM's finances are. GRAG: Are you following ArmeniaNow? GHAZARIAN: Sporadically. GRAG: What do you think about it? GHAZARIAN: It is fine in what it does. GRAG: Which means? GHAZARIAN: Which means that it suffers from the same things ArmeniaWeek suffered from: the depth in subject, the ability to have a cross-section of all the necessary subjects, fact-checking. At the same time, its strength is that its editors have always been socially conscious, and they try to do good socially conscious stories, and that's very important in Armenia. GRAG: Could we have one publication that covers Armenia and is read by the Diaspora? GHAZARIAN: Is this a theoretical question? GRAG: What I'm getting at is that in Armenia there is a certain reality, and in the Diaspora a certain image of Armenia. Based on this contradiction, could we have a magazine produced here by people anchored in this society and which could satisfy the needs, emotions and desires of the diaspora... GHAZARIAN: Absolutely! Because I am not sure that I agree with the question that there are images there in the diaspora and a reality here in Armenia. Here the whole society is [based] on images and assumptions. And the best thing we could do for the development of a healthy civic society here is to act as outsiders looking in. That was the whole premise on which ArmeniaWeek began. So the readers see themselves as seen by somebody two steps away. Which is what most journalism is. You write about the fire in your neighbourhood on the assumption that two neighbourhoods away they don't have a clue where the fire station is. Not everybody in Armenia will read the same articles, and in the Diaspora not everybody will read the same articles. GRAG: Thank you very much. * * * * *