By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian broadcasting service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has celebrated the 50th anniversary of its establishment amid words of appreciation and encouragement of its continuing mission to promote democracy and freedom of expression in Armenia.
The celebrations, led by RFE/RL Director of Broadcasting Michele DuBach, took place in Yerevan late last week in the presence of prominent politicians, government officials, public figures, journalists and ordinary listeners. Dozens of them attended an official reception dedicated to the 50 years of RFE/RL broadcasts in Armenian.
“Fiftieth anniversaries are also called golden anniversaries, and that seems appropriate at this time,” DuBach, who made her first-ever trip to Armenia on the occasion, said in her opening speech. “Our time spent with you truly has been golden. During these 50 years we have been with you in good times and in bad times, in times of struggle and in times of hope. It has been our privilege to be a part of your lives, and we thank you for that.”
Harry Tamrazian, the Armenian service director, also paid tribute to listeners. “We have always had one goal: to serve our listeners,” he said. “Our listeners have been our sole master. We have not let you down until now and I assure you that we will never let you down.”
RFE/RL was set up by the U.S. government at the start of the Cold War in 1952 with the aim of providing the peoples of the then Communist bloc with an alternative source of information about developments inside and outside their countries. Millions of people across the huge geographical area for decades tuned into its multilingual programs despite their governments’ persistent efforts to jam the broadcasts.
The corporation, which is directly funded by the U.S. Congress, continued its operations after the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, and even expanded broadcasts into Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in recent years. It currently broadcasts in 34 languages of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.
“Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty still has a role to play in Armenia. Our mission has not been completed, and we remain committed to bringing you the best programming possible in the coming years,” DuBach said.
Her view was shared by many members of the country’s political elite and media community. “It’s been a half century since Radio Liberty’s Armenian service began delivering truthful, objective and comprehensive information to Armenian society,” the Yerevan daily “Aravot” wrote on Friday.
“Radio Liberty has also been a serious school for many journalists in independent Armenia,” said another newspaper, “Iravunk.”
“There is hardly a family with a radio receiver in Armenia that has not listened to Liberty’s voice since Soviet times,” said the “Ayb-Fe” daily. “This is not just the radio station’s celebration, but also the listeners’.”
The paper backed up this view with quotes from leading politicians. “I find out more about the life in Armenia from Radio Liberty than from other media,” said Ruben Hovsepian, a parliament deputy from the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). “For me, it’s a vital thing.”
“I await and listen to Radio Liberty programs because I believe that they won’t air one-sided reports,” opposition leader Stepan Demirchian agreed.
DuBach described the Armenian service as one of the organization’s best language divisions, singling out the “good team” of reporters at its Yerevan bureau. “Each language service has a different type of program. The Armenian service is one of the services where we rely heavily on the content that we get from our local bureau,” she said at a meeting with the editorial staff of the state-run Armenian Public Television and Radio (APTR).
According to RFE/RL’s program evaluation unit, the Armenian service, which broadcasts for about two hours a day, has one of the highest listener ratings in the entire area of RFE/RL operations. It was the first language service to a launch a daily English-language news site on the Internet in 1997. The online publication became bilingual in 2001 and has seen a dramatic increase in the number of its readers. It is now a key source of Armenia-related information for the outside world.
In 1999, RFE/RL’s Armenian service pioneered a special 30-minute program designed for young people. The radio show called Max Liberty has managed to lower the average age of the service’s audience due to its focus on youth affairs and entertainment news. Max Liberty’s most ardent teenage listeners were honored at a disco party on Saturday that was part of the anniversary celebrations.
During the meeting at APTR and a separate roundtable discussion with local journalists, DuBach and Tamrazian argued that RFE/RL broadcasts in Armenian remain a necessity because Armenia has still a long way to before developing self-sufficient and politically independent mass media that would hold the government in check. They both mentioned the barrage of international criticism directed at the Armenian authorities since the closure of the independent A1+ television station in April 2002. The controversial shutdown led the New York-based watchdog Freedom House to downgrade its assessment of the Armenian media from “partly free” to “not free” earlier this year.
The RFE/RL executives were asked by some Armenian journalists whether the corporation’s own independence is limited by its being state-funded. “We can present criticism of U.S. policy in a fair and balanced way because our credibility is at stake,” DuBach stressed. “If we were to present just one side, the pro-American view, we wouldn’t be credible. That’s hard to do sometimes, but it is important.”
“A journalist becomes a real journalist only when his or her professionalism reaches a point where it doesn’t tolerate any interference from a state bureaucrat,” Tamrazian said, for his part.
DuBach further noted that she found strong public support in Armenia for continued RFE/RL broadcasts. “I get a sense that our work is very much appreciated in this country,” she said. “I’ve been to a number of countries to which we broadcast, and I would say that the reception that we have received here is one of the warmest ever.”
(Photolur photo: Michele DuBach and Harry Tamrazian, center, photographed with the Yerevan bureau staff on Friday.)