Press freedom eroded along with democracy in Armenia, as President Levon Ter-Petrossian reasserted autocratic rule and heavy media control despite a highly contested Sept. 22 national election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international monitors declared fraudulent.
During violent protests over election results, the president's office and other government agencies censored and threatened foreign and local journalists, and riot police destroyed the cameras of several news organizations. Authorities shut down two independent radio stations and a television channel for several days, forcing editors from their offices. But in the case of HAI-FM, the director herself sought police protection, fearing opposition reprisal for the station's favorable coverage of the president. Armenian media and administration officials censored Russian and Armenian television election footage. Police detained, interrogated, and beat Gagik Mrktchyan, political commentator for the Russian-language newspaper Golos Armenii, charging him with organizing mass unrest. Mrktchyan, who said he was punished for his journalistic rather than political activity, was released on his own recognizance after 10 days and his case was dropped.
Since the president's banning of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), known as the Dashnak Party, in 1994, authorities have closed a dozen newspapers associated with ARF, including Yerkir, formerly the largest circulation daily. Other opposition and independent publications exist alongside the official press, but have little impact. The combined circulation of Armenia's seven daily newspapers totals 25,000-30,000 in a country of about 3.5 million people. In a climate plagued with libel lawsuits and official intimidation, "there are very few Don Quixotes; somebody must be behind every newspaper," as an editor of a newspaper with Western investors explained to Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Prior to the election, state security agents warned leading newspapers not to criticize the president. Ter-Petrossian monopolized the airways, and opposition candidates received tendentious coverage from predominantly state-run electronic broadcasting or suffered last-minute refusals of paid television access. On Sept. 2, government radio executives fired the director of the State Radio Co. after an aggrieved state bread plant manager filed a libel lawsuit against him. Mass resignations at the station to protest the firing followed. Ter-Petrossian faulted the two sides in the dispute and urged the court to punish both.
The Ministry of Justice ordered a pro-government splinter group of the opposition party Ramgavar to take over the executive board of the opposition daily Azg. When the staff and board of Azg resisted the takeover, the ministry ordered their printing house to cease publication of the newspaper. On May 21, a court ruled that the ministry's attempt to change ownership was unlawful, and the paper resumed publication.
Vladimir Nazaryan, Russian Public Television (ORT), ATTACKED, HARASSED
Defense Ministry soldiers seized a Betacamcorder from Nazaryan, the Yerevan correspondent for ORT, four days after turbulent presidential elections in Armenia, an independent observer said. Nazaryan had filed a story to his Moscow bureau on election violence. The story, aired on ORT's prime-time evening news program "Vremya," described how the Armenian opposition stormed the parliament building on Sept. 25 to protest ballot-box tampering. When Interior Ministry police returned the camera to Nazaryan 10 hours after it was confiscated, Defense Ministry soldiers on the scene immediately grabbed him, beat him, and then returned him to his office, warning him not to file such reports. A Defense Ministry major told Nazaryan that his footage should not have shown tanks on the streets. The major warned another television company, A1+, which shared studios in Yerevan with ORT, that it could suffer reprisals as well if it did not "keep in line."
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