The Armenian media in Lebanon: pre-election divisions

Following the 1915-1920 Armenian Genocide in Turkey that took the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, hundreds of thousands of survivors were forced to settle in the the Levant. They settled in countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine to become an important cultural component of the region as a whole. Armenians in Lebanon are seen as the swing vote in this years June parliamentary elections, and as part of MENASSAT’s election coverage, we survey the Armenian media sector in Lebanon.
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Armenian media fall into Lebanese political divisions, though community members say Armenian issues will always prevail

BEIRUT, May 28, 2009 (MENASSAT) – Marking the 94th anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24 this year, Armenians in Lebanon have become a significant force in Lebanese politics.

In this multi-confessional country of 3 million, estimates put the Armenian-Lebanese population somewhere around 150,000. And after voting reform laws were introduced last year, Armenians are uniquely placed in key electoral districts and are expected to be the swing vote in Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections.

Armenian media has played a significant part in defining Armenian political platforms where Lebanese politics is concerned, and both main Lebanese political camps in Lebanon – the pro-western March 14 movement and the Hezbollah-led opposition - have been careful to make concessions to the Armenians.

Fiercely attached to their political, historical, and cultural legacy post-Genocide, Armenians have always had a powerful internal media element.

Early on in their arrival to Lebanon between 1915 and 1920, Armenians began publishing Armenian language newspapers. Between 1927 and 1937 is described by Armenian historians in Lebanon as the golden era of Armenian press when all three of the Lebanon’s major Armenian newspapers were founded.

The first Armenian newspaper called Aztag began in 1927. The paper was, and still is the mouthpiece of the largest Armenian party, the Tashnak party (The Armenian Federal Revolutionary Party).

In today’s current political climate, the Tashnak party is aligned with the March 8 coalition, the opposition political alliance with Christian supporters loyal to Lebanese Army general, Michel Aoun, and Shia supporters of Hezbollah.

9 years before Lebanon’s declaration of independence, a second Armenian-language paper - Ararat – was established in 1937.

Named after the famed Mount Ararat in present day Turkey, the Mt. Fuji-like symbol for Armenians, Ararat has emerged as the mouthpiece for the Hanshak party, the Socialist Democratic Party.

The other major Armenian newspaper of record, Zartonk (The Renaissance) was also founded in 1937 and represents the Armenian Liberal Democratic Party, Ramgafar.

Both papers are aligned with the pro-western March 14 coalition – currently the majority in government.

Aztag newspaper

Aztag describes itself as “a daily political and literary newspaper,” and its headquarters in a Tashnak-owned building in the Armenian district north of Beirut called Borj Hammoud – a swamp area first settled by Armenian genocide survivors in 1915.

During the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990 that cost some 200,000 Lebanese lives, the volume of the newspaper was reduced but it never stopped publishing.

The newspaper consists of ten pages, divided into different subjects, mainly concerning the Republic of Armenia and its various national causes.

The op-ed and the first page usually contain Lebanese, Armenian, regional and international news.

The internal pages are divided into Lebanese political news, Armenian cultural and political news from the Armenian Diaspora, including international genocide recognition campaigns and cultural and artistic news, features and opinion.

The newspaper issues a monthly special dedicated to children between 5 and 15 years old, comprised of writings and drawings from Armenian students around the world.

Aztag also publishes two yearly publications: the first at the beginning of each year, which reviews the major events that occurred during the passing year and analysis for the next year.

The second yearly publication is issued on April 24th of each year, on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It includes sections on preserving Armenian history and culture, and includes artistic and written features about the Armenian cause, in addition to interviews with genocide survivors.

The newspaper was also the first to issue an Arabic publication in 1996, but soon stopped because “the Lebanese general opinion has their media, and what concerns us is to address the Armenians,” former Aztag editor Armin Abdalian told MENASSAT.

Ararat newspaper

In 1937, Ararat entered the newspaper fray, and immediately injected a fresh voice into Armenian general politics and opinion.

Representing the Hanshak party, the newspaper suffered from harassment from the Lebanese political authorities in the 1950s and 1960s because of the papers editorial opposition to the Lebanese government.

The paper suffered from frequent government closures as a result.

In 1978, three years after the beginning of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, militiamen affiliated with the Lebanese Forces and other right-wing Christian parties attacked the headquarters of the newspaper.

The attacking militiamen also destroyed Ararat’s entire newspaper archive.

Theories behind the attack center around the political alliances the paper’s editorial support of Lebanon’s leftist political and Muslim-oriented militias (grouped together in the Lebanese National Movement), that supported and received support from the Palestinian Liberation Organization headed then by Yasser Arafat.

The newspaper continued its daily publishing until 2002 when it switched formats and began published weekly until 2005, when it resumed daily distribution again.

In 2009, the paper turned to a compact four-page daily news and analysis format, and based the layout redesign on a Armenian readership poll that posed the question: “What does the Armenian reader want in a newspaper?”

According to Ararat’s managing editor, Aharon Shikherdimian, the polled said, “The reader doesn’t like reading news because he receives them from other media. He is looking for political and cultural analysis”

The newspaper covers the Lebanese political movement, the essential activities of the Hanshak party, Armenian Diaspora news and local Armenian current events. It also focuses on analysis concerning local, regional and international political events.

Ararat also focuses on news from Armenia and its neighboring countries.

Zartonk newspaper

The Ramgafar party newspaper Zartonk appeared on the Lebanese newspaper scene the same year as Ararat in 1937.

It remained active as a daily until the end of 2006, when it scaled back distribution and then stopped publishing in a daily format in the end of 2007.

Zartonk re-launched in May 2008 on a semi-monthly basis, and in March 2009, it increased its publication to three issues per week.

Managing director of Zartonk, Sarkis Savrian told MENASSAT, “The real difficulties with our paper, in terms of publishing and distribution have mainly been political problems. But we’ve had major reshuffling of the administrative team over the years – as well as internal issues with the Ramgafar party,” although he wouldn’t elaborate on what those internal issues were.

Savrian said Zartonk issued an Arabic version of the newspaper between 2004 and 2007, and pledged by years end that they would resume republishing it. “We will also restart our daily publishing schedule again by the end of the year after a little more organizational restructuring,” he said.

It is worth noting that the new newspaper format has also begun publishing smaller editions and has been praised in the Armenian Diaspora for its international journalistic standards and lack of partisanship.

Like the rest of the Lebanese media, partisan reporting tends to dominate the editorial lens for what is published.

Voice of Van

The Armenian parties have continued to address Armenian general opinion through the newspapers, but in 1986, the domination of the newspaper as a medium in the Armenian community changed when a member of the Tashnak party established an independent radio station - the Voice of Van (a lake in ancestral Armenian land in eastern Turkey).

Two years later in 1988, the radio fell under the managerial control of the Tashnak party and became its official radio outlet.

This radio station is diverse with its political, cultural and social programs, in addition to the political programs about Armenian history and what concerns the Armenian cause as a whole.

It also broadcasts a daily program in Arabic treating political and cultural subjects important to Armenians.

Voice of Van remained an only child until the beginning of February 2008, when Sevan (a lake in the Armenian Republic) broke radio silence.

Sevan radio was considered the first non-partisan Armenian media outlet in Lebanon when it launched, but has slid increasingly towards the pro-government March 14 coalition, a political talk show programmer, Shiraz Jarhajian told MENASSAT.

During the street violence between Lebanon’s rival political camps in May 2008, militiamen aligned with the Hezbollah-led opposition, burned the offices of the radio station, and for one month after the cessation of violence and the signing of the May 2008 Doha peace accord the station was off the air.

In the summer of 2008, Sevan re-launched from an Armenian majority neighborhood in eastern Beirut.

Jarhajian explained, “This region was safer and easier for the guests to get to. It also allowed reporting from the main Armenian neighborhood, Borj Hammoud”

The TV stations: Armenian journals

In the early 2000s, as the Lebanese-Armenian political and business influence began to have more sway in the country’s political scene, Lebanese television networks began catering to the Armenian audience.

In 2001, the national Lebanese Television network began broadcasting a daily 10-minute news Journal in Armenian, in addition to its journals in French and English.

Today, the journal has been extended to a proper 30 minutes show, divided into three categories: Lebanese, Armenian and international news items.

In the Lebanese section, it focuses on the main local political news. The Armenian section includes news of official political events in Armenia-proper.

On the official day of commemoration for the Armenian genocide this year (April 24), and on the eve of the Lebanese parliamentary elections, the Christian opposition Free Patriotic Movement-affiliated TV station – OTV - started broadcasting a 30-minute Armenian news program.

Future TV broadcaster Grace Domanian al-Helu who works with a longer-standing 30-minute Armenian news program on the Pro-March 14 Future TV network, says the OTV decision was a purely political decision. “Because we are on the eve of the elections,” he told MENASSAT.

Abdalian agrees with Domanian saying “OTV wins from this journal on the political, electoral and even commercial levels. This affair is political on the first place.”   

A "light" political conflict

It could be said that there is no independent Armenian media. The Armenian press is primarily partisan, as seen with the two radio stations, Voice of Van and Seven.

However, despite the Armenian parties being divided on the political level between the opposition and the majority, the media does not mirror this division as much as Lebanese media outlets do.

For example, the Armenian media stayed away from using the same inflammatory rhetoric commonly found in Lebanese outlets since the assassination of former Lebanese PM, Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005.

The division is existent, says former Aztag editor Armin Abdalian, but “we are more evolved in the way we deal with our problems in the media when compared to the Lebanese media outlets.”

Managing editor for the Ararat newspaper, Aharon Shikherdimian agreed. "I appreciates the Armenian news programs on the Lebanese channels," he said, taking time to criticize OTV for its attack against March 14 and the Armenian parties supporting the majority.

“If the aim is to open a front, this is the wrong way,” he said.

Abdalian on the other hand criticized the Future TV Armenian journal.  “Similar to the Hanshak and the Ramgafar journal, they are attacking us constantly,” referring to those who sided with the opposition.

However, as Managing director of Zartonk, Sarkis Savrian says, there is a greater issue at hand for Armenians.

“The Armenian parties are united on Armenian causes. Their problem in Lebanon is being reduced to being part of a battle over power.”