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Radio Azatutyun Pushes Frontiers of Journalism in Armenia

Armenia -- Opposition supporters rally against President Serzh Sarkisian's victory in elections in front of his residence in Yerevan on February 21, 2013. RFE/RL's coverage of the elections broke new ground in multi-media reporting.
In 2008, Radio Azatutyun, RFE/RL’s Armenian Language Service, posted its first video on its website, launching a new, far-reaching strategy of “going visual.” Five years later, the initiative has transformed the service’s position in the Armenian media landscape.

Radio Azatutyun’s achievements take place within a media environment that has presented it with both opportunities and challenges. In its annual report, Freedom in the World, issued last month, the human rights watchdog Freedom House ranked Armenia as “partly free,” citing continuing political pressure on the press. Its 2013 survey of media freedom ranked Armenia as 5.75 on a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 meaning least free. As explained in a 2013 report by IREX, an international media research group, Armenian mainstream media outlets are often characterized by political partisanship or self-censor in order to avoid harassment by political forces.

Promoting Public Participation

Since Armenia’s independence in 1991, public trust in government has declined and much of the population has become apathetic, according to Freedom House. High levels of corruption and the lack of a competitive political environment have also compromised public confidence in the country’s political process.

In this landscape, Radio Azatutyun’s shift to Internet-based platforms has proven a fruitful one. It has standardized the use of video in its reporting to provide audiences with dynamic interviews, documentaries and human interest stories. It has also pioneered live-streaming to cover important events in the country. All in all, the service logs almost 300 new videos and reaches up to 500,000 viewers every month. Radio Azatutyun’s Youtube channel is now one of the most popular in Armenia.

Its use of new technologies was exemplified in its coverage of Armenia’s presidential elections last February. With live video reports, Google Hangouts and a live Facebook press conference, it covered the race and the opposition’s ‘alternative inauguration’ on April 9th in Yerevan. The use of Facebook enabled the audience to submit questions directly to political figures, who would address them during subsequent programs. Such interactive journalism, still new in Armenia, enables the public to participate in the political process and, possibly, experience a sense of political efficacy.

Enhancing Accountability

Radio Azatutyun has also shown how multi-media journalism can promote political transparency. On July 3rd it live-streamed five major press conferences, including those held by Armenian ministers of Finance, Economy and Social Security, held to address charges of corruption and misuse of public office. The coverage made the ministers’ responses directly available to the public in a manner not possible until recently.

Reporting That Permeates Borders

Yerevan--Armenians visit the Memorial Complex of Armenian Genocide Tsitsernakaberd on April 24, the commemoration day of the Great Armenian Genocide in 1915.
Yerevan--Armenians visit the Memorial Complex of Armenian Genocide Tsitsernakaberd on April 24, the commemoration day of the Great Armenian Genocide in 1915.
Radio Azatutyun’s reporting exploits the Internet’s capacity to transcend borders, something traditional media outlets struggle to do. Radio Azatutyun marked Armenia's Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24 with a collaborative project among RFE/RL’s Armenian, Georgian, Russian and Ukrainian Language services. The ten-hour Internet TV show, which reached almost 30,000 viewers in multiple countries, included live radio and video broadcasts from the day’s events in Yerevan, Brussels, Moscow, Kiev and Tbilisi.

With Advances Come Challenges

While the shift to new technologies expands the frontiers of journalism, it raises questions about how, and even whether, it strengthens the quality of the news provided. It is the Internet’s ease of accessibility where the trouble begins. The notion that anyone can publish whatever they want is troublesome for some, as new technologies are just as prone to misuse and manipulation as are traditional media forms. In a report by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), media scholar Larry Diamond remarks that the Internet and social media platforms are merely tools relying on intermediaries to interpret the information that they aggregate. They can be put to virtually any purpose.

Armenian Service Director Hrair Tamrazian covering the post-election developments in Armenia. February, 2013
Armenian Service Director Hrair Tamrazian covering the post-election developments in Armenia. February, 2013
Moreover, the Internet has created a sizeable digital divide in Armenia. Around 28 percent of Armenian households have an Internet connection, but access is limited in rural areas and people of advanced age tend not to be digitally inclined. Such divides aren’t exclusive to Armenia, but rather expose a class system of sorts in this new technological age: new technologies remain exclusive for those sufficiently affluent or savvy to obtain them or lucky enough to live within reach of a high-speed signal.

Armenian Service Director Hrair Tamrazian says he acknowledges the pitfalls of new technologies, but relishes the opportunities they provide.

“We would never want to be an agent of political change,” said Tamrazian. “But we have this luxury to be well-equipped and have the resources to be an agent of technological change, so we can share this experience with local media.”

--Anna Schmitt