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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Armenia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Armenia, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c565262.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Compared to 1996, a record year for press freedom violations in Armenia, 1997 did not bring any major new encroachments upon the rights of journalists and media freedom. But the ongoing tension between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan's borders, continues to provide an impetus for the government to tightly rein in the press. Even the resignation on February 3, 1998, of President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who reigned over the media crackdown of the past two years, under pressure from hard-liners in the government, is unlikely to bode well for press freedom, at least in the near future.

On June 18, the Ministry of National Security summoned three journalists from the independent Noyan Tapan news agency for questioning about the sources of an article on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) effort to mediate a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Interrogators suggested that the journalists, whose agency exchanges information with the Azerbaijan News Service in Baku, were harming national interests by revealing confidential information on the delicate negotiations. Presidential Press Secretary Levon Zourabian, in a letter to CPJ, asserted that the security service was only doing its duty in trying to plug a leak, since the Armenian government had agreed to strict confidentiality about the mediation effort. Zourabian stated in the letter that the reporters were not criminally charged and could have walked out of the meeting at any time. The journalists, however, felt intimidated.

Despite its professed support for freedom of expression, the Armenian government has frequently betrayed a desire to restrict the media. Journalistic freedoms are regulated by a Soviet-era media law, adopted in October 1991. The law bans censorship, but outlines a list of restricted topics, such as incitement to violence and hate speech. While those restrictions reflect standards within the European Convention on Human Rights, the law also limits "false and unverified information," a vague phrase that can readily be twisted by authorities. In recent years, a new media law was drafted and rejected. The Yerevan Press Club and other new press associations drafted a model press law, published in January in the newspaper Azg, which they submitted to the National Assembly for consideration. The draft emphasized media independence from government and forbade prior restraints.

Armenia has no law regulating television and radio broadcasting, but lawmakers have drafted legislation which reflects the spirit of the 1991 press law, banning censorship, while repeating its restrictions. Additionally, the proposed bill required broadcast media to give immediate air time to government officials in emergencies. Press freedom advocates faulted the legislation for failing to create an independent television authority to regulate state television and radio, and for requiring all programs (including foreign films) to be broadcast in Armenian.

The main source of news and information about Armenia comes to Armenians through the nationwide state-owned television, which the government oversees closely. Although there is no official censorship in Armenia, television is regulated by a loyalty system, which is censorship in all but name. Many of state broadcast media employees still believe that their role is to assure and defend presidential power and the president's policies. As a result, self-censorship is a widespread phenomenon among television and radio journalists.

Eighteen independent radio and television stations are in operation across the country, including A1+, a private company in Yerevan that made a name for itself with its courageous reporting on the opposition's raid on the parliament following the disputed presidential election of 1996.

As in many other East European countries, the print media are officially free, but enormously dependent on economic reforms, an underdeveloped advertising base, centralized distribution and printing facilities, underpaid journalists, and the meager purchasing power of the population. Editors faced daunting challenges. They have complained that 34 percent of their newspapers' revenues are spent on a variety of taxes and another 25 percent cover fees to the state distribution agency, Haimamul.

The state publishing house Periodica has been another source of contention. On some occasions it has refused to publish opposition newspapers, usually for political reasons. Periodica gained control of the market by offering attractive prices for newsprint, but has gradually increased them to burdensome levels.

Beleaguered by such pressures, on December 3, nearly all major newspapers, nine news agencies, and one radio station staged a day-long strike to demand tax and rent exemptions, the restructuring of the state distribution monopoly, and more competition in the publishing industry. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian agreed to meet with the editors and directors of these news organizations to discuss their demands. In a conciliatory gesture, Kocharian fired Garegin Chookaszian, the head of the government information department, whom he blamed for not solving the press' problems.

The president's office, the parliament, the Foreign Ministry, and the other government agencies require accreditation as set out by the current law on mass media. Some journalists complained they were denied accreditation for no clear reason other than suspicion that they are "unfriendly" or "incompetent." The Armenian law is vague on removal of accreditation. It does not include criteria for barring a reporter from a government agency, but it provides for removal of accreditation of foreign reporters if they violate the Armenian legislation. Press access to Defense Ministry functions, ranging from press conferences to visits to military bases, are tightly controlled and usually require the personal permission of the defense minister. At photo opportunities, press officials frequently try to instruct the media about whom, how, and where to shoot.

In April, Nicholas Daniloff, a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report who now directs the journalism program at Northeastern University, undertook a three-month fact-finding mission to Armenia and Azerbaijan for CPJ. The resulting report, "Mixed Signals: Press Freedom in Azerbaijan and Armenia," appears on p. 358.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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