Tribute: Azg Celebrates 20th Anniversary


By Suren Sargsian, PhD

YEREVAN — A new era in the history of the Armenian press truly began at the commencement of 1988. The birth of a free, democratic press depended on those large-scale, revolutionary changes which arose in the USSR in the 1990s. It is customary to divide the history of a new press into three stages: self-publication, transitional period and formation period. The basis of this was established in 1991 with the law titled “On the Press and Other Means of Mass Information,” by means of which the legal framework for the regulation of the activity of the press was formed. The most distinctive characteristic of this period was the battle of the resources of the press for the sake of social influence, and the passage from a sentimental, romantic style to that of moderate realism.

The traditional Armenian political parties began to work freely in Armenia in 1991. Of these, the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADLP) in particular commenced in newly independent Armenia with the publication of its first newspaper, Azg. The initiators were Hagop Avedikian, a longtime member of the political party and editor-in-chief of the Beirut daily Zartonk, and prominent DLP leader Edmond Azadian, the honorable intellectual of the Armenian press who has received the title of academician of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. The finances came from the great philanthropist Alex Manoogian via the central board of directors of the Tekeyan Cultural Association.

The technical group, led by Mihran Minasian, director of the Boston-based ADLP Baikar Association, and physicist Pavel Dallakian created the technical aspects of the newspaper, the fonts and the plan for the layout of the pages. After successfully concluding the preparatory work, under the editorship of Avedikian, the first issue of the newspaper was published on February 16, 1991. The editorial of the first issue clarified what type of periodical Azg was to become: “First of all, it will provide news, if it is a newspaper, so the communication of news is paramount. Second, Azg is to be the podium for free and unconstrained thought; free, just and appropriate criticism, no matter how painful that might be; and the bold posing of questions, no matter how sensitive these might be. Third, it will attempt to bolster and restore our people’s internal equilibrium. Fourth, it will attempt to unite our nation under the flag of pan-Armenianism with the vision of the national Great Dream — the slogan of one homeland, one people and one fate. Fifth, Azg is the mouthpiece for democratic and liberal ideology and mode of action; it restores that way of thought so brutally halted on Armenian native land some 70 years ago.”

The first and second issues of the periodical appeared as the official newspaper of the DLP, but at the demand of the registering body, the name of the political party was removed from the subtitle. Azg was not the official organ of the ADLP, but was created by a council of founders. The members of the founding council were Hagop Avedikian (Lebanon), Vatche Ghazarian (US) and Mihran Minasian (US), and joining after the January 20, 1992 reregistration of the newspaper were Konstantin Kostandian and Ruben Mirzakhanian (both from Armenia). The first eight or nine issues of the newspaper did not sell, although 10,000 copies were printed of each, but beginning with the 10th issue, it gradually became loved and attained great success. The print-run increased. During the first year of publication, 92 issues appeared, after which it became a daily newspaper. By the end of 1993, 43,000 copies of the newspaper were being sold daily. Not one copy was distributed for free. Revenue increased. In the first half of 1993, the newspaper was also published in the US. Through the activity of Azg newspaper, the foundations of true journalism were established in Armenia. Azg was one of our first periodicals with pluralistic, balanced and objective news. It was the first daily newspaper to be composed and formatted by computer, not only in the Republic of Armenia, but in the entire region.

The publication of the newspaper continued until April 1996 without any major interruption. However, due to political disagreements and the decision of the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Armenia, the composition of the founders’ [council] was fundamentally changed, and in April to May 1996, two newspapers bearing the same name appeared. One of them, by means of the Azg editorial staff and with the encouragement of the ADLP of Armenia, began on April 23 with 99 copies of one page, sent via computer, and edited by Hagop Avedikian. The latter wrote, “In our country, perhaps freedom of speech on sensitive topics and pluralism again clashed with the unformed state mechanism of democracy. We will not desert our workplace, and will continue our usual work activities.” The other was the false Azg (issue numbers 1082-1091) by the “Democratic Liberal Political Party Representation” public organization, under the signature of the editorial council. The latter on April 27, 1996 announced in its editorial, “Finally, the ADLP established its true representation in Armenia and restored its legal right with respect to Azg daily.”

The staff of the newspaper decided not to retreat one iota, and appealed for assistance to various organizations, including those outside Armenia. Many political parties, influential bodies and intellectuals immediately positively responded, declaring that “at this fateful moment for Azg…they cannot remain indifferent, and joining with the staff of the newspaper, they announce their decisive protest against what has happened.” After the May 8, 1996 decision of the Spandarian District People’s Court to restore the rights of the old staff of the council of founders, beginning on May 14, the real Azg newspaper recommenced publication with its former regularity. This is what the newspaper wrote in the editorial titled “Azg Returned to the Nation:”

“Justice in Armenia recorded its most important — and we hope irreversible — step; it created a precedent when the People’s Court annulled a decision of a section of the executive power, in this case, its administratively superior ministry.” The neo-Azg group did not quiet down even after this. There were even efforts to seize control of the newspaper by force. Twice efforts were made to set fire to the editorial offices, while employee Armen Baghdasarian and editor Hagop Avedikian were beaten. An article in the newspaper titled “An Attempt at a Violent Blow against the Executive and Office of the ADLP ” and dated July 3, 1996 said, “on the evening of July 2, a group of individuals from the former republican executive of the ADLP illegally entered the office of the ADLP republican executive and occupied it, declaring themselves to be the “Coordinating Council” of the political party, to which full powers had been given until the convening of the republican representative assembly to manage the party’s property, financial resources, office, seal and archive.” This proved that despite the court’s decision, perhaps passions had not subsided, but this was in vain, as justice had irreversibly triumphed.

During the 20 years of its existence, Azg was one of those exceptional periodicals appearing in Armenia which continually remained faithful to its principles, never yielding to the often false turmoil, never carrying out orders from “those above,” nor from outside or inside. Instead, it firmly followed the people’s concerns and sorrows, and became the most well-balanced periodical in Armenia, always standing out with the professionalism of its presentation of material, objectivity as much as possible and a refined approach to language and the choice of themes. Turning into a modest national and spiritual herald, the newspaper attempts to “melt,” to remove that huge barrier, developed upon the instructions of the Soviet system, which for 70 years continually disrupted the construction of a uniform and unified portrait of our people, worthy of appearing on the pan-human boulevard and leaving behind the best trail appropriate for it. It is not a coincidence that in nearly all its issues Azg reflected on the issues of the diaspora, illuminated the life and lifestyle of our compatriots living in different countries and attempted to aid the work dedicated to the nation of the preservation of Armenianness. Many notable intellectuals, both of the diaspora and the homeland, continually assisted the newspaper in this endeavor through their active publications. At the same time, we can record with a calm conscience that Azg truly has no rival in the sacred task of maintaining and fostering Armenian- diasporan relations at their best through its reflections on the diaspora. In our opinion, it is possible to divide the path Azg has traversed into three main stages: 1) 1991-1996 formation and stabilization; 2) 1996-2000 Azg as the leading periodical of the Republic; 3) Azg today.

Azg turned into a unique school for many newly discovered journalists and editors, and in this, editor- in-chief Avedikian’s journalistic and intellectual role is undeniable. Eleven to fifteen journalists and three or four analysts always worked on the staff; of these, five later founded their own newspapers and monthlies, and a few went on to work in diplomacy. Unlike many other periodicals, when a colleague is fired or goes to another job, in the case of Azg, the former employee’s tie is never broken with the editorial office. Furthermore, he often continues to correspond or participate in other ways in the work of producing the periodical. At present, Azg has a print run of 3,000.

The basic departments of the newspaper have not changed from the day of its inception. The current, political, economy, reflection, international, education, culture, athletic and other headings are fully consonant with the Azg mentality and express its cherished desires. The themes of Azg, what it has to say, deal above all with the spirit and woes of our nation, political events, our historical vicissitudes, the advancement and fortification of Armenian statehood and a number of other vital issues. The themes raised by the newspaper are always varied, while the diverse types of news it communicates are new, fresh and accurate. Remaining true to its principles, Azg presents topics in an objective manner and provides unbiased interpretations. It was the first of our [Armenian] papers to introduce the style of presenting short topics — short, but meaningful.

From the materials printed under the heading of “current,” it is obvious that the newspaper always feels the pulse of events and attempts to provide truly interesting news to its readers which excites the majority of the public. At the same time it decisively keeps its distance from the bad custom of obtaining an audience through cheap and false sensationalism, which today has become fairly common in our press. We saw Azg thus during the unfortunate days of October 1999, the national tragedy of March 2008, the period of Armeno-Turkish warming and during other shocking and ordinary events. The headings “politics and economy” are among the most important in Azg. Our life became very politicized beginning in 1985, while in 1988 politics penetrated into all spheres of our life, and in tandem with this, the population’s standard of living declined. This decline in the period of the third Republic of Armenia turned into a rapid fall. Azg, the chronicler of the life of the newly independent republic, could not remain indifferent to all that. Turkeylogist Hakob Chakrian provided the best presentation of processes taking place in Turkey, the Kurdish question and Armenian-Kurdish relations, and frequently appeared with mature, profound and multifaceted analyses. The fundamental issue of Mountainous Karabagh is always present in the newspaper. Irrespective of the dimensions of the negotiations and the directions adopted by the sides and mediators, only the principle of national self- determination remained acceptable for Azg. There is one other issue for the paper which is never subject to negotiation. That is the Armenian Genocide, our demands, the necessity for the preservation of national memory, educating the young in an Armenian fashion and completely removing the widespread denialist’s nonsense on this issue. It is praiseworthy that the periodical obtains news about all developments taking place about this matter in the various countries of the world. This includes the pro- Armenian position issued from the lips of the president of France, the setting up of placards stating “Join us, recognize the Armenian Genocide” in the United States, pressure by Europe to open the archives, pan-Armenian visits to the monuments dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Genocide, evenings of commemoration, masses performed in churches and symphonic concerts. The newspaper through its correspondents and friends or supporters follows developments connected with the Armenian Genocide and presents them with the greatest conscientiousness in an attempt to contribute its modest assistance to this important work.

Tense and difficult days for Azg and the nation begin every time parliamentary or presidential elections take place in the country. This is because it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to maintain an evenly balanced and unbiased position, and not give in to partiality, to keep a distance from various alluring proposals and instructions, which have spread so widely today among our media. To the honor of Azg, it is possible to say with a clear conscience (which is not possible to say concerning the nation S.S.) that it truly succeeded in remaining on a high level and realize the high calling of a serious and objective periodical. Moreover, often it was Azg itself which initiated calls to remain distant from shameful situations and appealed to intellectuals to remain wise, to raise its voice for the sake of justice and the purity of the idea of statehood, and cause to be heard the issues troubling the public: “Where are our intellectuals, who during such an important period for the people remain silent?”

The periodical did not remain indifferent to issues concerning our public such as the social environment, the moral and psychological situation of the masses, and problems concerning strong families, which, in my opinion, form one of the fundamental factors in the survival of the Armenian people. It contains many publications on these issues; many notable representatives of the cultural, educational and political realms have declared their points of view and called for free, open and unconstrained discussion. In all of this an idea appears like a red thread, that “no matter how much we become civilized, we do not have the right to permit our women to become immoral and desperate — the faithfulness of women is the basis of a strong family.”

The culture department forms an important portion of the newspaper. The materials placed there are distinguished by their freshness — they resound and are sought-after. New authors and new creations, unpublished documents and poems, new pronouncements about our great one, memoirs and other useful items are presented. I follow our press as a specialist and am aware of the developments in this field. I can confidently say that Azg is without peer in many important areas. Frequently the newspaper publishes reviews on newly appearing valuable works in which the best current studies are analyzed and evaluated, especially in the fields of historiography and philology. I cannot even think of one periodical which can be seen as close to Azg in this respect. My report would not be complete if I did not stress that many of the best intellectuals of the republic collaborate with the paper. There are many ways to collaborate, including giving interviews, writing reviews and discussing urgent issues of the day.

The life of the church has always been at the center of Azg’s attention, and on this topic too the daily has no rival. It frequently examines topics which have a vital importance for our people and which are closely connected with the role of the church in the course of tense life today. The church in turn is in close contact with the newspaper and values its efforts to help the nation both in the homeland and in the diaspora. For example, during the most recent election of a catholicos, an extensive discussion took place on the pages of the paper on this issue, with the attention of the people being directed to the past of the candidates and the work they had accomplished, so that the election of a worthy one would become possible and any misunderstanding would be precluded. Haigashen Ouzounian, Yervand Azadian, Nikolai Hovhannisian, Papken Megerian, Hagop Vartivarian, Ruben Mirzakhanian and many other prominent intellectuals appeared on the pages of the newspaper with analyses of issues connected with the church. Mirzakhanian’s interview concerning the 1999 catholicosal election, “Our Future Catholicos Must Be a Native of Armenia Not Only by Birth but in Manner of Thinking,” is a very interesting example. Azg has spoken out and expressed its concerns concerning the preservation of national structures and their purposeful use, as, for example, in the cases of the sale of the Melkonian School or Venice’s Armenian Holy Cross Church. The culture and children’s/adolescents’ supplements give evidence of the newspaper’s refined taste, rich thought, and its concerns about the quality of the spiritual legacy it will leave for future generations. I, as a lover of the poetry of Sevak, read with great happiness the piece printed in one of those supplements by Arevik Badalian, Voices from the Past, in which the author informs that a laser disc has appeared with a recording of Paruyr Sevak’s works. Publications dedicated to the anniversaries of prominent people often appear under the culture heading, such as those of Sergei Paradjanov, Carzou, Arshile Gorky, Ler Kamsar, Vahan Tekeyan and Yeghishe Charents.

Sports is one of Azg’s steady ongoing departments, which in the recent period became more extensive and active.

Without a doubt, one of Azg’s best achievements is its website, where the topics of the day are presented through six languages — Armenian, Russian, English, Turkish, Arabic and Persian. Azg is the only newspaper whose printed and electronic versions appear simultaneously. Naturally, this is not all that advantageous financially, but what is important, as the editor says, is not profit, but presenting the people with fresh news of a high quality on time. In May 2010, according to the independent Rambler index, the Azg website had 5-6,000 daily readers who on the average read six or seven topics. For many foreign international news media, 8-10 million hits a year is not a large figure, but in the Armenian reality, having approximately two million readers from Armenia and the diaspora visiting annually is a fairly significant phenomenon. Today, Azg’s readership in Armenia comprises more than 20 percent of the total market.

Congratulating the entire staff of the newspaper, present and past, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, I join in sending them all possible good wishes. I wish to underline once more that in Azg, despite its relative youth compared with the more than 200-year-old history of our press, we are dealing with a periodical that brings honor to any truly formed,mature, literate, well balanced and civilized people. It is a periodical which, I am convinced, will have something to say for many years to come and whose history and contents will still be much studied.

(This article originally appeared in Armenian in Azg on February 12, 2011.)