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Armenia's Murky Business Of Media Funding

By Ruzanna Khachatrian

Aram Abrahamian needs an extra 2 million drams (about $3,500) each month to be a happy man. This, according to the editor of "Aravot," would spare one of Armenia's leading newspapers the routine headache of scrambling for funds to pay for its printing and other production costs. That is quite a sum for the paper whose net monthly revenues from sales and advertising do not exceed 5 million drams.

So where does it hope to get the money from? "From political, official and business circles," Abrahamian replies with a smile. "Unfortunately, now things are not so good that I can get the entire sum from one source and live comfortably. I have to beg for the money."

Abrahamian's woes are typical for the vast majority of Armenian newspapers that are far from being self-sufficient, let alone profitable. Their main preoccupation is how to close budget gaps arising from their poor commercial performance. Recourse to so-called "sponsors," their editors admit, is the most common way of staying afloat. That, as one Western media watchdog put it recently, leaves Armenia's print media "at the mercy of government officials and wealthy sponsors."

No wonder that most publications have little incentive to improve the quality of their reporting which still leaves to be much desired after 12 years of overall press freedom. Nor do they see an urgent need to become truly commercial by attracting more readers and boosting their extremely low circulation.

There is, however, one newspaper that claims to have come out of this quagmire. The "Iravunk" (Right) bi-weekly, which is close to a small opposition party, prints the highest number of copies per issue: 15,000. It tends to present news from the leftist and somewhat nationalist perspectives.

"Our main source of revenues is sales. That is followed by advertising," says the "Iravunk" editor, Hovannes Galajian. "In normal economic conditions it should be all the way around."

The claims of self-sufficiency are dismissed as "fairy tales" by Gagik Mkrtchian, the editor of the "Hayots Ashkhar" (Armenian World), a staunch advocate of President Robert Kocharian. He says: "All newspapers have sponsors. One paper could cover 30 percent of its costs, another one 50 percent. Unfortunately, no media outlet can survive without sponsors."

Mkrtchian does not deny that his newspaper is mainly funded by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Kocharian's most powerful associate. "I don't think it is appropriate to talk about the financial situation of my newspaper and the names of its sponsors. I will never find it shameful to accept aid from a person like Serzh Sarkisian."

"Hayots Ashkhar" is not the only publication with which Sarkisian has had links. Abrahamian stunned many people in 1999 when he revealed that "Aravot" (Morning) had been funded by the minister for the past two years. He said the payments began in 1997 when Sarkisian was serving as national security minister in the administration of then President Levon Ter-Petrosian, whom "Aravot" has always supported. The liberal daily has never forgiven Kocharian and his allies for forcing Ter-Petrosian to step down in February 1998. Hence, its hard-hitting coverage of the current regime.

Abrahamian says if the powerful defense chief offers to resume the funding he will "think" before accepting or rejecting the money. "Taking money for publishing a newspaper is the same as taking a stone for hewing. I don't see anything bad in it," he explains.

His comments are echoed by Nikol Pashinian, the young editor of "Haykakan Zhamanak" (Armenian Time), another pro-opposition daily. One of the country's best selling periodicals, it prints only 3,500 copies a day to avoid more production costs. "We cover 80 percent of our costs from our sales," Pashinian says, adding that the remaining 20 percent comes from "business circles" which he refuses to name. He says the sponsors do not decide on the content of his paper because they only want to "promote liberal values" in Armenia.

A brief look at the Armenian print media is enough to understand why local businesspeople prefer sponsorship to ownership and rarely order newspaper advertisements. There now exist seven national dailies, two bi-weeklies and two weeklies offering a broad range of opinion. All but one are privately owned, belonging to their editors, staff or political parties. At least six of them support Kocharian despite occasionally criticizing some government policies. Their average print run is between 4,000 and 5,000 -- the main reason why they are unattractive to major business advertisers. The latter prefer to deal with national and regional television stations that have far bigger audiences and are mostly profitable.

Businesspeople giving cash to the newspapers seem to be doing so for political considerations. Those who have close government connections are simply told by their political patrons to help the pro-presidential media. The Russian-language newspaper "Golos Armenii" (Voice of Armenia), for example, is rumored to be sponsored by a local bank which is linked to Aleksan Harutiunian, a top Kocharian aide.

Things are less certain in the case of pro-opposition media funding. The money appears to come mainly from opposition politicians or their cronies involved in business. This is especially true of "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak."

Their editors complain that many entrepreneurs are wary of placing their advertisements in the anti-Kocharian publications for fear of government retribution. They therefore want to change the existing political order by helping the liberal minded independent media, the editors claim. According to Pashinian, "They are sponsoring us because we are saying what they can't say [openly.] In Armenia, the authorities can ruin any business in half an hour."

Just like "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak," those businessmen are likely to be sympathetic to Ter-Petrosian. Gurgen Arsenian of the Arsoil petrol company and Khachatur Sukiasian, the owner of the SIL group, are thought to be among them. Both men built their fortunes under the former regime and are now independent members of the Armenian parliament. They admit "helping" some media, but deny having any political agendas except the promotion of "liberal ideas."

Sukiasian, who is one of Armenia's wealthiest persons, claims that publications with different political orientations frequently turn to him for assistance and that he never refuses them.

But with altruism not commonplace in modern-day Armenia, that kind of assistance should come at a cost. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the severe financial constraints are limiting the influence and independence of the Armenian media.

"Dire economic conditions proved to be the greatest obstacle for the independent media in Armenia," CPJ said in an annual report on press freedom in Armenia last March. As a result, the report concluded, Armenian journalists "censored themselves and slanted their reporting in exchange for the financial support of wealthy patrons."

The recent closure of the independent A1+ television station could only aggravate the situation. The channel's existence was a rare example of an Armenian media outlet achieving self-sufficiency through objective and unbiased reporting.