The first president of the independent Republic of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian, maintains that it was the Karabakh Movement in Armenia that brought down the Berlin Wall. If there is some exaggeration in that statement, we can agree on the fact that the movement was one of the indicators that heralded the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the eventual demise of the Eastern Bloc.
In the wake of the collapse, the citizens of Armenia, like other constituent republics of the Soviet Union, found themselves in an atmosphere of boundless freedom. They were overwhelmed with their new reality and were not even sure how to handle their new situation or use that freedom responsibly to enhance their lives.
It was a defining moment for Armenia. Means of expressing and using that freedom had to be devised. It was at that moment — to be exact, on February 16, 1991 — that Azg daily began publication, creating a model for the news media to emulate.
During the Soviet period, the news media was the dullest venue in citizens’ lives. It was centrally dictated and the local news had to be confined to the latest agricultural developments or glorify the production of certain items, such as light bulbs, the production of which, they noted with enthusiasm, had grown exponentially compared to the statistics of 1913!
During the periods when the Soviet central government decided to win over Ankara, newspapers in Armenia were not even allowed to mention the Armenian Genocide.
It was in this stifling atmosphere that Azg breathed fresh air into the media by introducing the international norms of free journalism. Azg not only transformed the format of newspaper business, but also its content.
Readers experienced for the first time news about developments that had a bearing on their own lives or on the destiny of the homeland.
Citizens of Armenia who had been raised in an atheist society barely comprehended the role of the church and particularly that of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Thanks to the news and coverage in Azg, this new dimension was introduced into the lives of the Armenians. Ironically, to this day, the news media is not comfortable dealing with the role of the church in today’s society and its role in Armenian history.
Fundamental issues of Armenian history were brought forward and discussed freely, as gradually Soviet cosmopolitanism gave way to Armenian nationalism.
At that point, the electronic media was in its infancy and was not yet available in Armenia. But Azg was able to bypass that hurdle by bringing to its readers world news and commentaries, thanks to contributors from around the world.
Initially, the daily’s print circulation bordered on 30,000-40,000 — an unprecedented number for an Armenian publication.
From day one, the intellectual elite gravitated toward Azg. And today, when the paper has ecome a weekly publication, it can boast that it is still home to the current intellectual elite.
Much of the credit for that goes to charismatic editor Hagop Avedikian, who was trained under the legendary Lebanese-Armenian journalist Kersam Aharonian. Avedikian is a gifted journalist with a solid academic background.
Under Avedikian, the paper not only has remained a vibrant publication, but it has served as a school for modern Armenian journalism. Avedikian himself, serving as a professor of journalism at the State Pedagogical University, was able to train a crop of young reporters. Many prominent journalists and several diplomats working today were trained at Azg. In that respect, Avedikian can rightfully call himself the dean of journalists in Armenia.
Freedom of the press means having the right to report news or circulate opinions without censorship from the government. Avedikian believed that this should be the guiding principle of a free publication and he tried to exercise it in a newly-awakening society.
He soon discovered that the innocent exercise of this simple principle could be dangerous. He suffered the consequences, first by being attacked by unknown assailants and then finding that even the country’s president was blocking his way.
Indeed, Levon Ter-Petrosian took extraordinary measures to obstruct the publication of the paper. In addition, a judge who was recently elected to the post of Supreme Judicial Council of Armenia, Gagik Jahangiryan, seized the paper and gifted it to his cronies. It was at this time that the Western embassies in Armenia were alarmed and condemned the illegal act in no uncertain terms.
Thus, after several trials, the publication was returned to its rightful owners, the ADL organization.
Incidentally, when Armenia attained independence, the ADL was the first diasporan organization to build a cultural center in the heart of downtown Yerevan. It also founded the first radio station and politically it ranked second only after Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Movement in the freely elected first parliament.
During the last 30 years, journalism in Armenia has developed with a tremendous pace. Professional news outlets like CivilNet have emerged. But overall, journalists get mired down over trivia, and they have a myopic view of world affairs where they fail to distinguish the relevance of local or regional issues within the context of the broader developments of the world.
Even Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who began his career as a journalist, has proven to be a mediocre one, most of the time confusing rabblerousing with robust journalism.
Like many publications, Azg is shifting its emphasis to its electronic format, which has a much more global audience.
Azg is still enriched by the contributions of eminent journalists and intellectuals and it remains a thorn in the side of the authorities, with its independent stance.
With the profusion of news outlets, Azg has become one of many. But historically, it has been a trailblazer, which has illuminated the path of journalism in Armenia, and it can boast of having trained many of the best journalists in the country.