Founder of Jamanak, Misak (Kasim) Kochunian

Fate or Future: Time to Save Istanbul’s Jamanak Newspaper

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By Naneh Hovhannisyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Ever since the 2020 Karabakh War, there has been a pervasive stench of doom, defeat and despondency threatening to envelope us Armenians. A piece of news from Istanbul exacerbates it. Last year, a number of Armenian media outlets, as well as the Union of Journalists of Armenia, expressed concern over news that Istanbul’s Jamanak (Ժամանակ, pronounced ‘zhamanak’, i.e. ‘time’) is facing closure. For over a year, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Ara Kochunian [Gochunian, Koçunyan] had been warning in a large number of diasporan and Republic-based media outlets that without wider support, it will only survive another year. The reasons are several: the current drastic fall of the Turkish lira, the decline of the number of Turkish Armenians who can read Armenian, and the general trend of shrinking print journalism. 

Celebrating the 110th anniversary of Jamanak in London in 2018, Primate Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, at left, with editor-in-chief Ara Kochunian

That print journalism is in peril everywhere, being subsumed by the digital is no secret, though mainstream outlets are able to extract subscriptions and attract online ads. That the years of official Turkification and discrimination have resulted in fewer and fewer Armenians able to read or write (Western) Armenian is widely known too. Finally, Turkey is indeed in bad economic shape with high inflation, a rising cost of living and depressed wages. Be that as it may, Jamanak, a victim to all the above factors, I argue, needs to be saved.

Let me declare my personal interest at the outset: a friend of mine writes for Jamanak, and a report of mine was once re-printed in it. Otherwise, I have no affiliation with or profit from Jamanak. Nevertheless, staying neutral as Armenians seems wrong. I feel compelled to highlight the story because after the past years’ loss upon loss of lives and land, of cultural heritage and international standing, of unity and stability, of dignity and autonomy, we all wish to see this ugly gush of nasty news turn around.

Jamanak should not be allowed to die, if only because, as the well-known writer and documentary-maker Tigran Paskevichyan wrote, more than a mere paper, “it is vivid proof of [our] intellectual heritage… a symbol of Armenian presence in Turkey.” Throwing his weight behind Kochunian’s plea, he argued that, though scant, assimilated, and estranged from its mother tongue, that community still matters. Allowing the closure of a paper here today, and a school there tomorrow, Paskevichyan cautions, we are paving the way for the community’s retreat to the extent that the [Turkish] state could one day say, “you haven’t been here, haven’t been seen round here.”

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Paskevichyan, who made a film about the paper (“The Time of Jamanak,” directed by Ara Shirinian), has a point. Surveying the history of Armenian-language press, one is bound to see a pattern of interrupted beginnings. Armenian printed press began in 1794 in Madras when priest Harutyun Shmavonyan published the short-lived magazine Azdarar. The oldest existing Armenian-language periodical today is Bazmavep, published on the island of St Lazzaro in Venice since 1843. As for the first Armenian periodical in Turkey, Lro Gire [«Լրոյ գիրը»], started in 1832, it has disappeared without a trace. 

By contrast and almost as a lone exception, Jamanak has been going for exactly half of the 228-year-old history of the Armenian printed press. Founded by brothers Misak and Sarkis Kochunian in October 1908 on the wave of optimism about the Second Constitutional Era in the Ottoman Empire, it is the oldest existing daily in Armenian (for the last few decades, it has been published six days a week, rather than seven). Furthermore, it is the oldest daily newspaper in Turkey in any language, with an uninterrupted print run even during the Genocide. Consistency seems to have been Jamanak’s credo, as it has covered the last one hundred and fourteen years of Turkey: seen off sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Young Turk takeover and constitutional monarchy, World War I, Ottoman dissolution and the birth of the Republic, while also covering all three incarnations of the Armenian republic (first, Soviet, and independent) without significant change since inception. 

The paper strikes one as an Armenian institution to be cherished, especially given the country where it is published. Being in print in Turkey for over a century without interruption is an otherwise impossible feat. The country is known for government control and censorship of the press, frequently exercised during and in-between military takeovers through martial law and constitutional changes that followed. The government has frequently closed papers, including mainstream Turkish ones like Hürriyet, on a whim. 

Still in the hands of descendants of the founding family, whose members have also worked as staffers, it has been under Kochunian’s editorial leadership since 1992. At its peak, before 1915, the paper had reached a circulation of fifteen thousand (compared to the current one thousand) and was distributed from Anatolia to the Caucasus, from the Balkans to Egypt — the perimeter where the majority of the Armenian nation lived. The Kochunian brothers — one with a business head and the other a literary one — were well-known in Istanbul. Misak (1863-1913), known as Kasim, was the author of the first complete translation of Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentations into modern Western Armenian. The list of illustrious names who contributed journalistic articles, poems and short stories to, or worked at this four-page black-and-white paper, makes a dazzling display of fireworks. Intellectuals such as Krikor Zohrab, Daniel Varoujan, Gomidas, Tumanyan, Rupen SevagZabel YesayanSibil, Zareh VorpuniHagop MndzuriZaven Biberyan, and Zahrad, without whom the flourishing of early 20th century Armenian culture is impossible to imagine. 

Ara Güler, who immortalised the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Salvador Dalí and Winston Churchill, started here, with some of his first photographs of Istanbul’s fishermen published in 1952. His stints at Hayat, then at Time-Life’s Istanbul offices, followed by commissions from Paris Match, the Sunday Times, a meeting with Henri Cartier-Bresson, and inclusion in Magnum Photos all came later. And with them his fame as “the eye” or “the memory of Istanbul.”

As well as covering important events of the day, Jamanak has serialized literary works on its pages. In later years, the paper published books, such as Vahan Tekeyan’s Gesaria and Two Heavens, Rupen Zartaryan’s Articles, and In Asia Minor by Yerukhan (Yervant Srmakeshkhanlian).

Yet today, Jamanak is “at the edge of the precipice,” as its editor-in-chief Ara Kochunian tells me in our recent WhatsApp interview. “Our hope is that by informing the worldwide Armenian community, we generate enough good will for offers of support,” he says. After his initial interviews, some people helped, and “we actually survived last year at the expense of ‘artificial respiration,’” said Kochunian. 

His plan, however, involves more than enough funds to stay afloat, but rather as he phrased it, “to prepare to overcome the next phase of challenges.” Since the restricting factors, such as the low numbers of Armenian-readers, the insufficient number of buyers of a physical paper, as well as Turkey’s economic woes, are only getting worse, the team is aiming to make radical steps. “How much money are we talking about and what do you intend to do with it?” I ask. “One hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which is not a huge sum [for the industry],” says Kochunian. And he plans to retain complete editorial control. 

Istanbul, one of the main centers of Armenian cultural life and a most active printing hub in the 19th century, is home to nearly all of Turkey’s remaining Armenians, roughly 60,000. (There are also economic migrants from Armenia, who are unlikely to read Western Armenian.) For comparison, there are 230,000 left in Georgia and 100,000 in Iran. Their newspaper loyalties are split, with some preferring Marmara, another Armenian-language paper (now known as Nor Marmara, with a print run of 2,500, published six times a week), begun in 1940. But the real story of success and main rival has been Agos weekly. Starting in 1996 with a circulation of 2,000, at the time of its co-founder and editor-in-chief Hrant Dink’s death in 2007, it had reached a circulation of around 6,000. It is the only newspaper in Turkey published in Armenian and Turkish, and has been credited with greatly increasing the participation of Armenians in the political and cultural life in Turkey. Hence, Kochunyan and the team are planning to go bilingual.

His other plan is, together with his team of ten-or-so staff in Istanbul, plus around five reporters outside Turkey, to take the paper online, as an addition to the printed version. “[W]e understand that our print format hasn’t exhausted itself… It is solving the problem of convening with a group of people in their mother tongue. On the other hand, we see that around the world many authoritative newspapers have stopped publishing physical copies but are a presence in reporting news. So we also want to prepare for that eventuality – so that this paper’s activity doesn’t completely halt with the depletion of the paper version. We do have a presence on social networks, a modest, minimal one, but the results show that we can do better if we do more,” says Kochunian.

Lastly, Kochunian’s ambition seems to be to somewhat revive former Constantinople’s place as one of Armenian intellectual centers (albeit it a digital one) by opening up to audiences outside Turkey. “We can both solve the problem of preserving Western Armenian and contribute to the collective thought of the widely dispersed Armenians. Because Bolis, or Istanbul, historically was a cradle, a brilliant center where the intellectual production always had a crucial influence on the formation of the collective Armenian thought. It’s true it is not that Bolis today but … all of the diaspora’s core centers have weakened and shrank. Istanbul is not the same, but it does not mean that the tradition, heritage has to be squandered. Because [it] is a source for inspiration and can form our future,” he said. 

Have they had any offers of money recently? “Sadly, no,” is his reply. “At this moment, we do not have what I expected… we haven’t gotten anything.” He graciously tries to explain this no doubt disappointing fact by the current fatigue and multiple major challenges for Armenians around the world: the Second Karabakh War and the plight of the Lebanese Armenians, for example. “Right now is an extremely difficult time for the Armenians. ․․․[and] in the atmosphere of competing priorities, it is extremely optimistic to hold out hopes [of help].”

I ask if he has thought of a self-organized online crowdfunding drive. “Sadly, we do not have the necessary infrastructure, but would gratefully accept help from such an initiative on our behalf, organized by friends and well-wishers outside Turkey.’’ I wonder if this is an indication of a precarious situation “But we have one advantage,’’ Kochunian continues, “which I keep stressing, which is that such alarms are rung normally when a given institution has a lot of debt, whereas [what] inspires confidence is the fact that we are not indebted to any individual or organisation. This is important in two ways: firstly, …there is no question of failure of management, of accounting, of short-sightedness, or of waste, and secondly, we hope that people will appreciate this and will realize that whatever they invest or transfer, will start to directly benefit our goals. So, it might have looked suspicious if we were asking for money to get up to point zero, but it isn’t the case at all… People may appreciate this [as well as the fact that] we are the world’s oldest Armenian daily … [and should not be allowed] to fall into the abyss due to … temporary circumstances, because being in existence for 114 years in the diaspora – in Istanbul – for a paper means, as far as the Armenian nation is concerned (excuse the immodesty), that this is a timeless value.”

However, having navigated the turbulent last century in Turkey and steering clear of conflict earned Jamanak accusations of being conformist and pro-government from certain quarters of the Turkish-Armenian community. Yet Kochunian is unequivocal: a minor newspaper by Turkish standards, Jamanak realises it cannot make or change the political atmosphere, so “why be controversial for the sake of it?” I ask how the paper refers to “the events of 1915.” “Genocide. We make use of our right to openly state what happened, without being deliberately confrontational,” he says.

In the English-speaking world, where I am based, as far as mainstream media in trouble is concerned, market forces would be obeyed, and the enterprise would either exhaust itself naturally, or a new buyer would step in and revive it, keeping the brand. Jamanak, however, as a minority paper, is to a large extent the responsibility of a given community. My suggestion is to define that community in the widest possible sense. In the absence of continuous and clear geographic boundaries, owing to our perilous history, aside from our Church, if a language can foster a home, then Armenian has been it — in books printed since 1512 in Venice, Amsterdam, and Lviv — and periodicals published in India, Iran and America. Especially that “many papers in the diaspora are published in foreign languages; the press is in very bad shape,” as Hakob Asatryan of Orer, an Armenian-language magazine published in Czech Republic, once summarized.

There is a joke about a foreign visitor to England who marvels at the manicured lawns. “How do you do it?” he asks a local. “We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years,” he hears back. The importance of building on something already in existence, of following an established tradition can be ignored in this raving anti-expert century of ours, but often at our own peril. Where there is no system, no infrastructure, no environment, no players to look up to, or even to look across at, we are forever condemned to re-inventing the wheel and therefore lagging behind. It is possible to see our story, the Armenian story, as a constant string of being nipped in the bud, an unceasing row of false starts. Our writers got censored or killed before they matured, and our artists exiled even before they succeeded. 

As Turkish essayist Enis Batur noted in Paskevichyan’s documentary, “When we look at the history of the media, we see that the newspaper is a medium of internal communication in a way to comprehend the outside world by people speaking the same language. Just as archaeologists excavate layer upon layer of ancient cities, so does the media over time, whether daily or weekly in format, involuntarily represent the layers of culture produced in that language and making whole its system of values. Looking from this angle, the newspaper represents one of the most important rights of a given minority.” Hence, bringing Jamanak back from the edge of the precipice is surely the right thing to do.

And if “Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” as former President and Publisher of the Washington Post Philip L. Graham said, are we going to let others – again – write the draft of our history one newspaper at a time, one school and community organization at a time? 

To support Jamanak, contact Ara Kochunian via jamanak@jamanak.com.

(Naneh Hovhannisyan is a writer of book reviews, essays and memoir. Originally from Armenia, she now lives in the UK.)

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