#WeAreSakartvelo: Using Information to Build Bridges

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

JNEWS is a local independent media outlet in Javakheti, a majority ethnic Armenian region in Georgia’s south. Several years ago, a group of active citizens in Javakheti created the outlet to ensure that ethnic Armenians - many of whom lack Georgian language skills - could receive fact-based information about local and national issues. Now, the outlet is playing an important role in promoting civic integration in Georgia.

7 years ago in Akhalkalaki, Javakheti, a group of friends - four journalists and one engineer – met to discuss what they could do to improve conditions in the region. They decided that what Javakheti needed most was an independent media outlet based on strong journalistic principles, while the rest of Georgia needed a voice from Javakheti. This is how JNEWS – the Javakheti Information Center – was established by five women with a 1,800 euro grant. 

"Initially, we wanted to launch a blog with this budget, then we thought we could create a website. Together, we decided the name, visual scheme, and colors. We did not have an office, we had meetings in the street" - recalls Kristina Marabyan, one of the founders of JNEWS. The outlet was co-founded by Kristina along with Rima Gharibyan, Shushana Shirinyan, Ani Minasyan, and Aghunik Ayvaziyan. 

Today, JNEWS is a well-known regional media outlet in Georgia and the leading voice in Javakheti. It reports on important issues in the Georgian, Armenian, and Russian languages. 

According to its founders, more than 70,000 people visit the JNEWS website from different parts of the world each month. It not only informs Georgian society about news in the region of Javakheti, which is  densely populated by ethnic Armenians, but it is also one of the main ways for people in Javakheti to learn about what is going on in the country.  

Recently, the founders stumbled upon the records from their brainstorming back in 2014. They realized that the main goals they set more than seven years ago have already been achieved. 

”We have accomplished [our goals],” they say, adding, “We have transformed”. 

It certainly was not easy to achieve these goals. It was a difficult journey, one that involved overcoming gender, ethnic, and other cultural stereotypes. 

Building a Bridge

According to the 2014 census, 4.5% of Georgia's population is Armenian, making them the second largest ethnic group in the country. Armenians make up 92.2% of Akhalkalaki residents and 95% of Ninotsminda. Javakheti is home to several different ethnic communities: Armenians, Georgians, including eco-migrants, Greeks, and Russians. The Armenian population is the region’s largest.  

JNEWS launched when there was almost “no information in Armenian language in the region,” recalls Kristina. Mainly due to language barriers, the main sources of information accessible to the population were Russian and Armenian media. Javakheti did not have an active local media outlet which could report and tell the region’s story to the rest of the country.

"Javakheti is a region near the border that is densely populated by. We witnessed that it was becoming a kind of instrument of geopolitical passions ... While the people in this region lived a normal life, we thought that if there were no media that communicated about the needs and thoughts of the people here, it would always be used for different [geopolitical] purposes” - recalls Rima, the editor-in-chief. “In 2014, even European media wrote that if Georgia joined NATO, Javakheti would be separated from Georgia ... We thought that there should be a media outlet which could report information from here. Fortunately, we have managed to do this.” 

“It is important that someone explain, when people go to a political rally, for instance – what  are their needs? This should be reported so that Georgia understands this. For example, there was a period when we were perceived as separatists in Georgia, as if we did not want things to go well in the country. But this is not true, we have the same problems that others have, we have the same needs like other citizens, and Georgia should see these issues as they are in reality. Fair, ethical journalism helps this, and the situation in the region largely depends on it” – says Kristina. 

5 Women and their Impact on the Community

The media organization founded by five women years ago in a small regional town laid the ground not only for an information breakthrough, but it also made unexpected changes in the usual cultural and political routine of Akhalkalaki.  

Shushana Shirinyan was 40 years old when she left her career as an engineer and joined the JNEWS team as a journalist. Now, she considers writing and journalism to be the best profession for her. She recalls that in 2014, when the team started covering news, conducting polls, talking about problems, criticizing, and even demanding to attend government level meetings, their actions were surprising to many people. 

Gender was an important factor in this. 

“There was a stereotype that women are not capable of anything. We have shown that they are. We were sitting and working with men and we were showing that women could participate in discussions and decision-making processes about regional issues”- recalls Shushana. “For instance, City Hall members were not accustomed to the fact that women were attending the meetings. Now, this has changed. I think that our team has also contributed to this.” 

Currently, the team at JNEWS consists of 15 women of both older and younger generations. But all of them had to overcome stereotypes and help change attitudes in the community.

“When you go to a small town for news coverage, you come across acquaintances and relatives,  and you know almost everyone. It was hard in the beginning. They didn’t expect this from us – you are either somebody’s daughter or somebody’s wife. They were asking how we wrote this way. But for us, the truth is the most important thing. Soon, everyone realized this” – recalls Shushana.

Soon, official bodies became accustomed to the fact that the media would ask them for information, which they were obliged to provide. The journalists remember that in the beginning, official agencies’ perception of the media was one of the biggest challenges. But the JNEWS team is now most proud of the citizens’ active engagement. 

“If before we had to travel to some village kilometers away to get a small press comment, nowadays people approach us to share problems and to raise issues”- says Aghunik Ayvazyan, one of the co-founders of JNEWS, who has been the editor of Armenian language division for past three years. The reason of this increased interest may also be the news that changed peoples’ lives:

“We mainly write about the region, social issues; we pay significant attention to education; we write about personal issues. For example, I remember a story of a single mother of three, who was blind and lived in extreme poverty. When a local official heard this news, they found her a home and provided her with social services. After this, people started contacting us” – says Aghunik. She points out that readers are not only interested in stories about local Armenians, but about all of the ethnic groups of the region.

Homeland

When asked which issues were most important to ethnic Armenians living in Javakheti, JNEWS’s answer is the same: In Javakheti, different ethnic groups, including ethnic Armenians, live alongside each other. Their everyday lives, along with their aspirations and problems, are alike. They are not divided along ethnic lines.  

“There are more differences between our region and the rest of Georgia, rather than among the ethnic minorities within our region... There’s no ethnic distinction or problems. Azerbaijanis come from Marneuli and buy potatoes, Turks also come”- says Kristina, whose neighbors are mainly ethnic Georgian.

“I’ll tell you about my personal example,” she says when responding to a question about the civic integration of ethnic Armenians. “I personally went through this process. I studied in an Armenian school and got higher education in Armenia. And there I heard for the first time that I was not a citizen of Armenia. Then, we had close relations with Armenia and I had no contact with Georgians.”

Though challenges remain, the journalists say that nowadays we have a better picture of the integration process in the region, compared to 10, 15 years ago. It is especially reflected in youth. One of the reasons for this is improving Georgian language instruction and more active civic engagement. For example, JNEWS reported that this year 250 students finishing high school in Akhalkalaki continued their studies in Georgian universities. This is almost twice the number from 2010, when it was 186. How can we assess what Georgia means to ethnic Armenians? Rima often thinks about this, as covering integration issues is one of the publication’s main priorities:

“We have a feeling that this is our homeland, I am part of it. But regarding being part of the country as a system, they [ethnic Armenians] have no such feeling. They feel a connection to the land, but when there are problems, they have no requirements from the government. For example, when they couldn’t leave the country due to closed borders, they didn’t require answers from the local authorities, but they searched for alternative ways.”

“Integration depends on how we are received in the rest of Georgia. If they receive us as strangers, we will remain strangers” – says Kristina.

-How do you feel, are you a stranger?

- I’m not. I have the same rights and obligations as others. Here’s the difference: If you feel yourself to be a citizen, you remain in the country, learn Georgian, and live in the region. If you don’t feel this way – you leave for another country. It’s important not to frustrate such people… when a person doesn’t know what’s going on in their country, it’ll make no difference what actually goes on in the country. We work so that people understand this.”

 

Last updated: February 23, 2022

Share This Page