Armenian News Network / Groong

Review & Outlook

Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written consent from Groong's Administrator.
Copyright 2002 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
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.


			    *  *  *  *  *

| Home | Administrative | Introduction | Armenian News | World News | Feedback