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Mixed Signals: Press freedom in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Author Nicholas Daniloff
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Mixed Signals: Press freedom in Armenia and Azerbaijan, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c567c037.html [accessed 23 September 2014]
Comments This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1997".
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.

By Nicholas Daniloff

The persistence of political and military censorship, restrictive media legislation, and violent attacks against journalists and media organizations in Azerbaijan and Armenia prompted CPJ to undertake a of the Open Society Institute, CPJ commissioned Nicholas Daniloff, a specialist on the media in the Caucasus who directs the journalism program at Northeastern University in Boston, to conduct a three-month fact-finding mission to the two countries beginning in April 1997. While on sabbatical in 1997, he lectured on democracy and the role of the independent press at Garb University in Baku. He conducted extensive interviews with local editors, reporters, media and human rights groups, professional associations, and government officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

This essay is adapted from CPJ's special report, "Paradoxes in the Caucasus."


Oil Flows More Freely Than Ideas in Azerbaijan

At 25, Gunduz M. Tairli is a chain-smoking, ink-stained journalist. His face is angular; his expression intense. He is chief editor of Azadliq, one of Baku's most popular newspapers, and the organ of the opposition Popular Front party. Putting out Azadliq is a daily struggle for Tairli, who labors 12 hours a day, six days a week for the equivalent of $50 a month.

Every night, Tairli's colleagues run the tabloid's eight pages across town to the headquarters of the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets (also referred to as Glavlit, the acronym for Soviet censorship) to get the censor's stamp of approval before it is published in the Azerbaijan Publishing House. There are no private publishing houses available to newspapers; presses for large print runs are expensive, as are newsprint and electricity.

Approval comes only after the censor ponders each page and cuts material deemed undesirable as the Azadliq journalists wait. Explanations for cuts are not offered, and when journalists ask, they get evasive answers. Azadliq (the Azeri word for "liberty") keeps a collection of cartoons to fill in the holes, because censors don't like blank spaces. Nevertheless, they sometimes appear in the newspaper. If the gaps are too large, the censors may ban the entire edition. Tairli maintains a remarkable equanimity about it all and reveals that, from time to time, the newspaper gets telephone calls of approval from secret admirers within the official establishment.

Between 1992 and 1997, censorship in Azerbaijan has waxed and waned, depending on the administration in power. In the first months of Abulfaz Elchibey's Popular Front government in 1992, censorship was all but abandoned, only to be revived as a result of the 1992-94 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan's borders. On coming to power in 1993, President Heydar Aliyev continued the military censorship of his predecessor and added two other layers of constraint: political censorship and military censorship by the Baku commandant.

During the parliamentary elections of November 1995, Aliyev eased censorship and allowed the media to report instances of election fraud. The Baku commandant no longer reviews materials for publication, but there have been recent complaints that military censorship persists despite its formal abolition last year. These days, censors focus mostly on guarding Aliyev and family members from embarrassment.

One of the difficulties of living with censorship has been the absence of an official "taboo list." Censors get oral instructions from the chief censor and his colleagues. They also keep a log book of what they have cut and pass notes among themselves.

While censorship is occasionally acknowledged, officials mention it as little as possible. The official calling card of chief censor Jahangir Ildrimzade gives only his name, not his job.

Subjects routinely excised include human rights in Azerbaijan; criticism of government policy; criticism of the defense, security, police, and other law-enforcement agencies; and accounts of opposition leaders. According to the New Generation Group of the Union of Journalists, known by its Azeri name, Yeni Nesil, which keeps a tally of incidents, censorship of opposition and independent newspapers continued throughout 1997. (See p. 307 for list of Azerbaijani cases).The primary statute regulating the Azerbaijani press since independence in 1991 is the Law on Mass Media, derived from the Soviet Union's press law, and adopted by Azerbaijan on July 21, 1992. While the law explicitly prohibits prior censorship, when Azerbaijan went to war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the government declared a state of emergency and reimposed censorship in violation of the constitution. Parliament subsequently modified the law in December 1993, to allow military censorship.

The law's formal ban on censorship is further eroded by so-called "take-away" clauses, adopted directly from Soviet law, that prohibit the publicizing of state secrets; classified materials; calls for the forcible overthrow of the government; war propaganda; violence and cruelty; hatred and intolerance of ethnic, social, or class groups; pornography; invasions of personal privacy; and assaults on the honor and dignity of citizens. These vaguely defined subjects are open to interpretation.

The law contains several other restrictions, such as the requirement to register with the authorities, and not to disclose developments in criminal investigations without written permission from the prosecutor. The law provides for the closure of mass media in some cases and even contains a list of dos and don'ts for journalists, in a section titled "Rights and Obligations of the Journalist."

The criminal code, virtually unchanged from Soviet times, limits criticism of government officials, punishes "false and dishonoring" comments; and specifically prohibits "critical comments on the activity" of the president of the republic.

The new Azerbaijani constitution, drafted under President Aliyev, was adopted by referendum on November 12, 1995, four years after independence, and imposed upon Soviet-era legislation, which has yet to be revised. This 154-article constitution contains all the standard freedoms of a fundamental law on democracy, including popular elections of president and parliament, separation of powers, rights of the individual, an independent judiciary, and judicial review by a constitutional court. There are articles banning state censorship and guaranteeing freedom of expression, speech, religion, and assembly. Citizens may petition the state for the redress of grievances.

But along with these freedoms come potentially restrictive clauses. The constitution pays particular attention in Article 46 to protecting the honor and dignity of citizens – a traditional issue in the Caucasus. Article 106 protects the honor and dignity of the president; Article 75 guarantees respect for state symbols. Together, these articles effectively ban criticism of the chief executive.

On January 25, 1997, Azerbaijan enacted a comprehensive law on official secrets, which holds journalists, as well as officials, responsible for leaks of classified materials. Critics assailed the bill for ushering in such a wide range of forbidden topics that journalists would be unable to write anything. The statute, inspired by the Russian law on official secrets, groups sensitive subjects under four headings: military, economic, foreign policy, and intelligence. Nevertheless, it officially places some issues that were secret during Soviet times – such as the health of high officials, accidents, and the state of the environment – within the public domain.

The Azerbaijani parliament is slated to consider further legislation affecting the press. Draft bills on freedom of information and on financial support of the press have been forwarded to the parliament by Yeni Nesil. Parliamentary sources report that the legislature is drafting its own versions of these bills.

No law currently regulates television or radio, although the spirit of the Law on Mass Media prevails in broadcasting. Television journalists are drafting a model law which would deal specifically with broadcasting, allocation of frequencies, and the status of independent stations.The government maintains strong control over Azerbaijani State Television and Radio, the only medium that reach the entire nation, and that are the only source of information in some rural areas. Control is exercised through the loyalty of key personnel, verified by a censor's office located at television headquarters, and monitored by the presidential office.

State television broadcasts on two channels, Az/TV-1, and Az/TV-2. Channel 1 devotes large segments of its newscasts to coverage of President Aliyev, including repeated clips of his pilgrimage to Mecca and his kissing of the Azeri flag. Az/TV-2 concentrates more on entertainment.

Strict control on both channels induces self-censorship among editorial employees. "After you've been censored three times," says one TV journalist, "you either think, 'I must do this or that to make the piece acceptable or it won't go, and I won't get my honorarium.' If you are not able to accept that, you leave."

Paradoxically, however, the government allows one private television broadcaster, Azerbaijan News Service (ANS), to operate and broadcast news almost without censorship; it is something of a showpiece with which to court the West. ANS is not considered a threat because it reaches less than 13 percent of the population, mostly located in the Baku area where the opposition press operates. But the ANS management has plans to extend the reach of its signal and so could become more threatening in the future.

Despite controls on television, Baku residents do not feel isolated from the outside world. The government does not jam foreign television broadcasts. Two Russian channels – ORT and RTR – are widely available, as are two Turkish channels – TRT and one private Turkish channel. In May, NTV, a leading Russian private television company, began broadcasting in Azeri, reaching viewers in Baku, Sumgait, and Absheron Peninsula. Just two weeks after NTV went on the air in Azerbaijan, however, some of its programs were censored – instead of the scheduled programs, still shots occasionally appear. Evening movie broadcasts have been stopped altogether. These measures resulted from a decision by "the relevant body responsible for ideology," as Vahif Musayev, an official of the Communications Ministry, explained, "because NTV's programs are harmful to public morals."

For the vast majority of Azerbaijan's population, however, the main source of news and information remains the two state channels. President Aliyev's office makes sure that these channels project constant and upbeat views of his activities. Az/TV-1 lavishes air time on press conferences, airport arrivals and departure statements, and visiting foreign VIPs. (The newspapers Bakinskii Rabochii and Khalq Gazeti do the same in print). One joke currently circulating in Baku portrays the televised Aliyev personality cult this way:

A frustrated viewer calls the television repair man to his apartment. The repairman examines the television set which is producing a distorted image on the screen. He offers this explanation: "I can fix Channel 1 pretty easily, but I'll have to go back to the shop to get some parts for Channel 2. Will that be all right?" The owner, anxious to restore reception, agrees. The repairman writes down on a piece of paper what parts he needs to fix Channel 2. As for Channel 1, he takes a portrait of President Aliyev out of his pocket and tapes it over the screen.

State television has apparently succeeded in convincing the population that Aliyev is the man of the hour. Ask people on the street what they think of the president and they will tell you: He is a strong leader, which is what we need at this moment. He knows the world. After all, he rose to the top of the political establishment of the Soviet Union and became a Politburo member. He, if anyone, can solve our greatest problem, returning the lost land of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and sending the one million refugees back to their homes. (Azeri intellectuals have more critical views, but carry less weight in the Azerbaijani political world.)

The chief television censor's office is in Room 46 on the second floor of the State Television and Radio building. All broadcast material must receive the censor's approbation as well as the approval of editors. Because of the length of the approval process, state television is often behind the curve with important breaking news. When a major event occurs, like the explosion in the Baku metro in the fall of 1995, state television was days behind the ANS reports.

One former state television employee questions whether the censor is really necessary. "On Azeri television you can't have free opinions," he says. "Government television workers are like birds who have grown up in a cage. They don't know what freedom is. If they step out of line, they soon find themselves out of work."

The management considers it inappropriate to allow political opponents access to state television, other than at times stipulated by election laws. Furthermore, the president's control of the airwaves gives him carte blanche to smear his opponents.

At present, the authorities have not addressed the issue of freedom of information on the Internet. Some observers believe that the Azerbaijani government has not developed sufficient computer literacy to appreciate the possibilities of the Internet, or to know how to block pornographic or dissident materials. Free access to the Internet is limited and available only at the Academy of Sciences and a few other academic institutions. Private subscribers can gain access by subscribing for a fee through two companies, Intrans and Compuserve.Despite censorship, Azerbaijani print journalism shows signs of vitality. Until 1995, the country had only one daily newspaper, Azerbaijan, but today it has more than a dozen dailies. These newspapers, and other sheets which appear one or more times a week, supply a wide variety of domestic news and political views – diversity of information unheard of in Soviet times.

Newspapers are inherently vulnerable in the economic conditions prevailing in Azerbaijan. They depend on additional revenues from sponsors such as political parties, wealthy individuals, or Western nongovernmental organizations such as the Westminster Fund (United Kingdom), The Soros Foundation (United States), or The Nauman Fund (Germany). The government occasionally plays on this vulnerability. Azadliq says it is losing advertising revenue because government officials have warned some clients to remove their ads. Facing severe financial constraints, corruption in the form of payments for puff pieces or withholding information sometimes occurs.

The government holds another card: control of premises. The Turan news agency and Azadliq are both housed in a building on Hagani Street in central Baku belonging to the city. Neither pays rent, but neither feels secure about the long-term future.

The government also monopolizes printing. All dailies are published by the Azerbaijan Publishing House, accountable to the president's office. This presidential link is occasionally exercised. In August 1996 the printing house refused to print the newspaper Avrasiya for several weeks because of critical articles it had published; and in February 1997, it declined, without explanation, to publish the opposition newspaper Jumkhurriyet.

The Azerbaijan Publishing House can also inflate the price of newsprint. During the mid-1990s, when there was a newsprint shortage, the publishing house charged $1,500 a ton. Zerkalo editor Rauf R. Talishinsky says he now pays $750 a ton by importing newsprint from Russia.

Newspapers in Baku and Azerbaijan are distributed principally through the state distribution service, Metbuat Yaiymy. Their charge for this service is extravagant: 48 percent of sales. Recently, this service imposed a new financial burden on newspapers by requiring them to pay in advance and delaying the forwarding of receipts to editorial offices.As Azerbaijan finds its way in the post-Soviet era, powerful officials accustomed to an obedient press have taken matters into their own hands when censorship has failed them.

In May 1997, police stopped Azadliq correspondent Elchin Seljuk while he was on assignment in Nakhchivan to report on the political intentions of former president Elchibey. They accused him of disorderly conduct and held him overnight. A local court rejected a prosecutor's demands for a guilty verdict and 15 days' imprisonment, but fined Seljuk 22,000 manats (about $5.50). Azadliq editor Gunduz Tairli said the police action did not surprise him. "The authorities are not anxious for us to report on Elchibey's plans," he said.

On June 6, 1997, a security guard slapped Ayna-Zerkalo correspondent Kamal Ali in the face while Ali was conducting an interview in parliament. The guard claimed that the interview had gone on too long. When Ali and fellow correspondents refused to leave, the guard began striking the others. In the aftermath of the incident, the parliament's security chief acknowledged the misbehavior and both he and the guard apologized for the attack.

Azerbaijani press critics say there have been fewer physical attacks on journalists in the last two years, prompting some to assert that media conditions in Azerbaijan are improving. Others disagree. "Not so," says one journalist for Ayna-Zerkalo. "What's really happening is that we have learned what irritates the authorities and we are censoring ourselves."

Despite difficulties, the Baku journalism community is productive and feisty. One indicator is the determination of Yeni Nesil to keep a detailed list of censorship abuses. It has been difficult to compile, however, because some editors prefer to avoid attention. Government officials do not relish publicity for the dark side of state control. Nevertheless, Yeni Nesil publishes these incidents in Azeri, Russian, and English in its monthly bulletin, "Principles and Reality," which circulates in Baku and among human rights and press freedom organizations in the West.

Another initiative by Yeni Nesil was to organize top editors to protest the new licensing regulations adopted at the end of 1996. This protest was also published in "Principles and Reality" but produced no results. Another journalistic protest, however, proved more successful. In June 1996, the Special Department of the president's office asked all newspapers to supply lists of their reporters with home addresses and home phones. The editors of Zerkalo, Azadliq, and 7 Gün pointedly refused. In view of public indignation over the issue, the request was dropped.

Editors are coming up with new initiatives. Günay and the Assa-Irada news agency decided independently to publish two English-language weeklies, Günay and Azernews, for the growing international community. Azaliq recently inaugurated a weekly Russian edition to make its news available to the long-time Russian community of Baku.

One of the more imaginative developments is Monitor, a glossy monthly magazine, which avoids Azerbaijani censors by being published in Turkey. The magazine recently ran such pieces as "Do We Need Censorship?" "Freedom of Speech in Azerbaijan," and "The Great Sexual Revolution" – topics inconceivable during Soviet times. Officials could stop Monitor at customs, but so far this has not happened.

"There are two views of the Azeri press today," says Arif Aliyev, president of the Yeni Nesil. "The view from the trenches is that there are too many restrictions. But the longer view is that there has been a big change and there is hope it will develop some more."

Soviet-Era Legacy Constricts Armenia's Media

Seeking to build a democratic society in which media play a major role, Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, has given free rein to the press. Journalists concede that the new era has, on occasion, bordered on license. "Some of our journalists attack the president like hooligans," says one editor. The bitter truth is that editors and reporters have discovered that a high level of liberty combined with inexperienced, opinionated, young reporters who are careless about verifying facts has led to errors, denials, corrections, and general loss of credibility in the media.

An unhealthy confrontation between press and government has arisen in recent years in which officials have on more than one occasion taken revenge.

Armenian journalists are caught in a vicious circle: They bear the wrath of government officials who say reporters are neither fair nor balanced; at the same time, they often find it impossible to present the full picture because officials withhold information. Because of war and blockade, Armenia has been relatively isolated from the outside world. Journalists clearly need more contact with Western practice which seeks to present all sides of a story. Officials need to learn that in a democracy, honesty rather than evasion or cover-up is the best policy. Unfortunately, Western journalists have largely by-passed the Caucasus, preferring to offer their advice on how independent journalists operate to the new democracies of Eastern Europe.

Government pressure on journalists has produced contradictory reactions in the journalistic community. Some journalists assert that the attacks only feed their contrariness. Others admit to reacting with caution and self-censorship.

Intimidation persists, in the view of reporters. On June 18, 1997, 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 OSCE effort to mediate a settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh. Interrogators suggested the journalists, whose agency exchanges information with the Azerbaijan News Service in Baku, were harming national interests.

Presidential Press Secretary Levon Zourabian put a softer spin on the incident. In a letter to CPJ, Zourabian 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. The journalists, on the other hand, felt intimidated. Zourabian asserted in his letter that the journalists were not being criminally charged and could have walked out of the meeting at any time.

In the absence of censorship, Armenian officials resort to verbal pressure and sometimes physical retribution to knock journalists into line.

Ruben A. Satyan, editor in chief of the Russian-language newspaper Vremya, recounts a run-in with officials. In describing a military parade in 1994, he reported that one Armenian general was wearing non-regulation trousers. Because of a shortage of uniforms, the general had sewn red stripes on pants intended for a private.

Satyan was summoned to the military prosecutor's office, and given a dressing down. He was warned to be more careful in the future. "How old are you?" demanded the prosecutor, Satyan recalls. When Satyan answered, "I'm 48," the prosecutor retorted, "It's good you're not 45, otherwise, I'd have you sent to fight in Karabakh."

The view of the press from the presidential office is equally harsh. An advisor to President Levon Ter-Petrossian* recalls the case of an elderly survivor of the 1915 genocide who asked him to inquire into the fate of his grandson whose release from prison on good behavior was being held up. A prison official was demanding a US$300 bribe. The advisor says he referred the matter to a presidential commission which oversees prison sentences. The commission identified the extortionist and fired him; the young man was released. But the presidential advisor says that journalists, reporting the incident in the press, accused him of abuse of power without seeking his side of the story.

"They never even bothered to call me to find out the facts. They were afraid that they would be proved wrong," the advisor recalls. And he continued, "The press is absolutely free here. Things are written which can't be written in Europe – I mean the degree of hatred and disrespect I see. I seldom feel that what is written in our press is opening a new thought or adding a dimension to my thinking. I'm not satisfied."Armenia declared its intention to become independent in 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet its new constitution, proclaiming Armenia to be a democratic, sovereign state based on the rule of law, was adopted only on July 5, 1995, by referendum. A laborious process is now underway to redraft Soviet-era legislation to conform with the new order.

Journalistic freedoms, meanwhile, are regulated by a Soviet-era media law, adopted on October 8, 1991, which is considered out of date by most political and journalistic leaders except the communists. A new media law was drafted but rejected as inappropriate. Yerevan journalists have submitted a draft law of their own, which has yet to be debated in the National Assembly.

As in Azerbaijan, the operative law on the press and other mass media derives from Soviet law and stresses restrictions at the expense of liberty. Article 2 of the Armenian law, for example, forbids censorship, but qualifies that ban with Article 6: a list of vaguely worded prohibitions against appeals to war or illegal acts, violence, religious hatred; against publication of pornography, against promotion of drug usage, or disclosure of details of discreet adoption of children, or facts about a person's sexual life. Questionable from a Western point of view (which holds that errors are inevitable in journalism) is a clause prohibiting the publication of "false or unverified information." Article 11 permits the closure of media outlets that violate the law, although it allows appeals.

A separate section of the law outlines the rights and responsibilities of the journalist. Troublesome from a democratic point of view is Article 28.2, which requires publication only of "verified and reliable information." Another article obliges journalists to name sources "if required" without specifying the circumstances.

The Yerevan Press Club and other new press associations drafted a model law published in January 1997 and forwarded to parliament. This draft emphasizes media independence from government and forbids prior restraints. It addresses such issues as the need for protection of anonymous sources, the permissible use of hidden cameras and recordings and the possibility, within certain guidelines, of publishing or broadcasting erotic material.

Even the press club draft, however, reflects what could be called a "Soviet mentality." Article 4 of the draft repeats the prohibitions of the Soviet press law and retains a requirement to register a journalistic operation with the authorities. It outlines the rights and responsibilities of journalists and calls on the state to safeguard journalists, a clause intended to counter a rash of beatings of journalists.

Article 29 of the journalists' draft also preserves a procedure for closing down a journalistic operation. For Armenian journalists, creating a process for closure may be a lesser evil: In December 1994, 13 newspapers and presses associated with the Dashnak party were closed without due process when President Ter-Petrossian decreed a temporary ban on the party's activities.

The new Armenian constitution is cautious about media freedom. Article 24 guarantees freedom of expression: "Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, including the freedom to seek, receive, and disseminate information and ideas through any medium of information, regardless of state borders." But media censorship is not explicitly banned. Furthermore, in a borrowing from the Russian constitution, Articles 44 and 45 allow temporary suspension of media liberties to protect "state and public security, public order, public health and morality, and the rights, freedoms, honor, and reputation of others."

In 1996, a restrictive law on state secrets was adopted. As in Azerbaijan, the terms of this law are derived from the Russian Official Secrets Act.

Currently, Armenia has no law regulating television or radio broadcasting, although one is being developed. The draft of March 18, 1997, has been forwarded to parliament's Standing Committee on Science, Education, Culture, and Youth. In several respects, this bill reflects the spirit of the Law on the press and other mass media: It bans censorship and repeats the restrictions found in the print law. Additionally, it requires broadcast media to give immediate air time to government officials in emergencies. The draft has been criticized for not creating an independent television authority to run state television and radio, and for requiring all programs (including foreign films) to be in Armenian.

Despite its professed support for freedom of expression, the Armenian government betrays a disinclination to allow an open approach to media freedoms. As Vano Siradeghian, Minister of Internal Affairs, has warned, "To give democracy in its full extent, in its Western form, to a society that has never known what democracy is, is to destroy that society. I am convinced that the transition to democracy should be accompanied by a certain demonstration of authoritarianism."The main source of news and information about Armenia comes to Armenians through nationwide television. As in Azerbaijan, television is the one medium capable of reaching the vast majority of citizens and for that reason the government oversees it carefully. Although there is no official censorship in Armenia, television is regulated by a loyalty system that is censorship in all but name.

Alex Iskandarian, a television journalist with long Soviet experience, is the chief of the Television Analytic Information Agency, which puts together the "Lhraber" program. At the downtown offices of state television, he creates and coordinates each day's program, as he frantically tries to answer telephone calls.

"We work by government order," he says candidly. "We decide by smell what to put on. We don't give the opposition view, but we don't always put on what the ministries want, either." He explains that ministries sometimes give him materials to air, but he has the right to object, and he exercises it. He justifies government control by appealing to the difficulties of the transitional economy. But he says he foresees a freer era "if we have peace."

"For now, we need to have television in the hands of the state to tell people that we are in a tough situation. It's difficult to come from a socialist past and go to real democracy."

Armenia's television operation is overseen by Perch Stepanian, who joined state television in 1967; he was named chief in 1995. This white-haired administrator, like so many other officials, seems to be struggling to adapt to Armenia's new ways. Asked what he considers to be the main goals of contemporary television, he replies, "One of our major goals is to present the government's programs. But we must also give time to the political opposition."

He explains that opposition figures are invited to participate in discussion shows such as "Orenk yev ishkhantyun" (Law and Power), "Dem ar Dem" (Face to Face), or "Hingshabti" (Thursday). They don't always accept, though. "We have lots of live coverage where people can proclaim what they want," he says. But he concedes that the lion's share of air time goes to the government. "That's dictated by our status."

During the 1996 presidential elections, President Ter-Petrossian appeared so often on Channel 1 that many Yerevaners say they tired of his appearances.

Stepanian acknowledges that many television programs do not elicit the kind of interest he would like to see. "Our workers come with Soviet experience," he explains. "It is difficult for them to forget Glavlit [censorship] and self-censorship and to teach them freedom. Mostly the fault is with the journalists, rather than the government."

Presidential Press Secretary Levon Zourabian says Channels 1 and 2 might be privatized by auction, although there is concern about keeping them out of the hands of business interests who might ignore the public trust and use them to promote their own selfish, commercial interests.

Officials are studying control of television in Britain and France even as the National Assembly prepares to debate the draft law on television, possibly this fall. Director Stepanian is not enthusiastic about the bill. He says it does not provide the mechanism needed to put television under mixed government-private control.

Of course, an administrative reorganization would be only a first step toward improving the credibility and popularity of state television. The focus of programming should shift to issues relevant to ordinary citizens and away from the activities of officials. And Armenian television journalists would profit from training and on-the-job experience in Europe or the United States.

The state's Channels 1 and Channel 2 (the second channel is also known as Nork) are only part of the picture of television in Armenia. Eighteen independent stations have cropped up across the country, including A1+, a private company in Yerevan. This station, run by journalistic entrepreneur Mesrop Movsesian, has made a name for itself with its courageous reporting. It aired two-and-a-half hours of coverage of the opposition's raid on parliament following the disputed presidential elections of 1996, reaching an audience of 150,000 (about 15 percent of Yerevan's 1 million population). Another independent station, Ashtarak TV, also sent a reporter to cover the event, which was minimized by State Television and Radio. Afterwards, the Ashtarak station director was beaten up.

Movsesian got the message and has moderated his broadcasts by giving access to government views. He hired Aram Abramyan, a former presidential press secretary, to host a Sunday analysis program.

A1+ is located in eight dingy rooms in an Academy of Sciences building in central Yerevan. On May 31, 1997, the station broadcast a critical piece about the judicial system in Armenia on its 9:45 p.m. newscast. The previous night it had aired a segment on the slow city clean-up after the traditional, all-night celebration of high school graduation.

Internews, the California-based foundation, is encouraging the creation of a network of independent television stations in Armenia.Another source of independent news is the Internet. So far, access for the public in Yerevan is limited but available at the Institute of Physics, the U.S. Information Service, and IREX, the American exchange agency for scholars. Two Internet providers, Arminco and Infocom, provide service to a few wealthy subscribers. In the city of Gyumri, access is available at the nongovernmental organization center.

The government did not try to interfere directly with the Internet during the controversial presidential elections of 1996, but journalists noted that telephone lines were sporadically cut, complicating access.

The newly created Chief Directorate for Information and Book Publishing has replaced the Ministry of Press and Information, which was disbanded under Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian. The agency will bear watching to see if it promotes access to the Internet for all citizens, or seeks to limit its informational possibilities when they include critical views of the government.

The print media are free in Armenia, but they are financially dependent and vulnerable to outside pressures. Because of the poor state of the economy, there is an inadequate advertising base. Newspapers cannot sustain themselves by sales and revenues from classified and general advertising.

Today in Yerevan, a plethora of government, independent, and opposition newspapers vie for readers. This competition promotes sensationalism and discourages badly needed cooperative ventures in the journalistic community.

The economics of newspapering in Armenia today are forbidding. Newspapers sell for 30 drams (7 cents) for government broadsheets and up to 100 drams (22 cents) for independent or opposition newspapers. For a wage-earner who is bringing in the equivalent of US$40 a month, these prices are high. That means few Armenians can read all of the capital's newspapers, and most will read only one or two on an irregular basis. Thus, the new pluralism of views is lost on the individual.

Editors face daunting challenges – they say 34 percent of income goes to pay a variety of taxes, and another 25 percent is spent on the state distribution agency, Haimamul. Yerevan newspapers are obliged by law to rely on the agency. Outside of Yerevan, regional newspapers suffer similar financial difficulties, which force them to publish irregularly and in very small editions. There is some talk among officials about privatizing this agency.

Another source of contention is Periodika, the state publishing house, which publishes all major Yerevan dailies. On occasion, Periodika has refused to publish opposition newspapers for reasons which are often unclear but appear to be political. While Periodika is not the only press available, it has established a firm hold on the market by offering attractive prices. Nevertheless, editors complain that Periodika overcharges for newsprint and believe that competition could force a reduction in rates.

Currently, the U.S. Embassy and government officials are discussing the possibility of financing an alternative publishing house for daily newspapers.President Ter-Petrossian professes admiration for a free press, but his administration has set a negative tone in relations with the media – rarely, if ever, allowing interviews with the president. His aides give three explanations: First, the president is not a populist and does not seek to curry favor by frequent appearances. Second, frequent appearances would only debase the currency of his pronouncements. Third, the president feels the new Armenian media are immature and unprofessional.

Since coming to office in 1991, Ter-Petrossian has held only two official news conferences for the Armenian press, although he has made himself available for "protocol" press conferences when receiving foreign dignitaries. During the spring visit of Kyrgyzstan's president Askar Akayev, Ter-Petrossian took questions from journalists for about 40 minutes. The president seems to prefer to speak with experienced foreign correspondents. Consequently, some important disclosures relating to Armenian policy have come from abroad, clearly offending home-grown media.

Ministerial officials, taking their cue from the president, have felt free to adopt restrictive policies on access. The president's office, parliament, the Foreign Ministry, and other government agencies require journalists to be accredited according to the procedures set out in the Law on Mass Media. Usually, an editor's letter of recommendation is required for accreditation, but some journalists say they have been denied accreditation for no clear reason other than a suspicion that they are "unfriendly" or "incompetent." In addition to accreditation from the relevant ministry, journalists need to be accredited by the Foreign Ministry and an identification card from the media outlet with which they are affiliated.

The Armenian law is vague on the removal of accreditation. The law does not include criteria for barring a reporter from a government agency. But it does provide for the removal of foreign correspondents' accreditation if they violate the laws or constitution of Armenia.

Government ministries have established press offices, but journalists report that their aim is more to protect the agency and the minister than to facilitate the flow of information. Furthermore, there is a tendency on the part of government press officials to supply news first to the official news agency, Armenpress, or to government media and friendly journalists. A number of Yerevan journalists said they were surprised to see that visiting German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel included on his plane a handful of journalists critical of German policy. That kind of access for the opposition press is inconceivable in Armenia.

Even an open body such as the National Assembly is reluctant to share information with independent journalists. "I try to explain to them that it only advances their interests to share with me the bills that they are working on. But they don't seem to understand. They seem to fear what we journalists are going to seize on," says reporter Naine Mkrtchian of the newspaper Azg.

Press access to Ministry of Defense events are highly controlled and usually require the personal permission of the defense minister. During a visit by Alexander Lebed, the former Russian general and politician, ministry press officials ordered the media not to film Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian alongside Lebed. Officials said the political ramifications of showing them together were too complicated.The collapse of Soviet-style journalism has brought a new type of writer to the fore – youthful, enthusiastic, but often without training or experience. Some experienced editors say the new journalists fail to differentiate news from views; are insufficiently concerned about accuracy; lack historical and political knowledge; and are unskilled in interviewing and developing sources. As a result, young journalists are sometimes inept at digging out facts, and can be thrown off the scent by clever officials.

Senior members of the Yerevan Press Club tend to confirm this assessment. "We don't yet have a critical mass of good journalists," says one officer. "There are only about a handful who really can go after information and dig it out, and those are usually working for foreign news agencies."

Naine Mkrtchian, a youthful reporter for Azg, rankles under such charges. She asserts that government officials are largely to blame for placing obstacles in the way of all but friendly reporters. President of the newly formed National Press Club, this young woman feels the Soviet heritage of press controls still weighs too heavily in Yerevan. She opposes the draft press law, developed by the Yerevan Press Club, which she considers insufficiently democratic. "A press law in itself means regulation; the fewer rules, the better," she says.

One experienced journalist sums up the mood in Armenian journalism today: "You work without the feeling of hope that your work is going to be useful to someone. Yes, there is pluralism of views, but that pluralism is pushed into a small box. There is pluralism but not that much objectivity. The government tolerates this, but we get the impression that this is a gesture to the West."

Efforts are being made to train the new generation of journalists and to develop a general code of ethics. Both the Yerevan Press Club (60 members) and the Union of Journalists (1,500 members) have held training seminars for journalists, supported by several Western foundations. The independent television station A1+ received a grant for short-term instruction of television journalists which was deemed to be successful. Several new private colleges are reported to have opened journalism departments.

The Yerevan Press Club has developed a 12-point declaration of support for independent media. But this document is concerned principally with the management of media rather than the ethical conduct of journalists. The newly formed, 20-member National Press Club reports that it has created a committee to develop a code of ethics.


CPJ recommends that:

  • The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan respect freedom of the press and provide guarantees so that journalists may work freely and safely, without fear of reprisal. The notion that free media are in any way a destabilizing factor or harmful to national or public interests contradicts all universally recognized principles of democracy;
  • The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan must ensure that all cases of violence and crimes against journalists and media organizations be thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The lack of due justice on behalf of victimized journalists fosters a climate of fear and intimidation that inhibits freedom of expression;
  • Despite constitutional guarantees against censorship, the criminal codes in both countries limit criticism of government officials through various statutes penalizing "false and dishonoring" comments, insults, and criticism of the president. CPJ opposes the use of criminal statutes to address libel suits and condemns the misuse of libel statutes by public officials to suppress journalistic investigation.
  • The government of Azerbaijan should immediately and unconditionally lift all political and military censorship of the media. Despite a 1996 presidential decree removing military censorship, journalists and media-watch groups report that the practice persists along with political censorship in violation of all international norms of press freedom and free speech.
  • As a matter of foreign policy, CPJ calls on the U.S. government to stress the importance of free media in its dealings with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is the view of independent journalists in the region that greater support for professional training could contribute greatly to the development of an independent press community. CPJ encourages the U.S. government to establish regular opportunities for journalists in Armenia and Azerbaijan to travel to the United States and participate in media conferences and training programs. We note the effectiveness of the United States Information Agency exchange program for journalists from Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular, where Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats jointly participated in meetings in the United States. Similar efforts must be made to engage Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists in such joint programs, whereby the U.S. host organizations would provide a neutral ground for discussion and debate on relevant issues in the Caucasus.
Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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