Attacks on the Press 1999: Armenia

The October murders of Armenian prime minister Vazgen Sarkissian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, by heavily armed gunmen who raided the Parliament building, shocked the nation and divided local media. While the assassins’ motives remained inscrutable at year’s end, some journalists jumped to the swift and as yet unsubstantiated conclusion that the killings represented an attempt to derail the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested Armenian enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan.

This reaction illustrated the politicization that has undermined public confidence in the Armenian press. Most newspapers and media outlets in Armenia are backed by political parties or business interests. Throughout the year, Prime Minister Sarkissian’s government used legal measures to punish opposition media.

Consider, for example, the travails of the daily newspaper Oragir and its editor, Nikol Pashinian. In March, Oragir lost a defamation suit. In April, the paper was ordered to pay damages of US$25,000 after losing another defamation suit. In July, Pashinian registered a new newspaper called Haykakan Zhamanak to replace Oragir, although it fared little better than its predecessor. Haykakan Zhamanak has had trouble finding a printer, and at year’s end a group of men burst into the newspaper’s office and assaulted several staff members. Pashinian himself has been struggling to stay out of jail since August, when he was sentenced to a one-year prison term on various charges.

On December 31, unidentified assailants used at least one Molotov cocktail to start a fire in the offices of the Russian-language Yerevan newspaper Novoye Vremya. The paper had only recently reprinted a controversial article from a Moscow newspaper, speculating about Sarkissian’s assassination.

The state still controls many areas essential to media production: printing, newsprint supply, distribution, allocation of broadcast frequencies, taxation, and assignment of office space. As a result, self-censorship is widespread. Restrictive legislation is yet another problem. The press law currently in effect was passed in 1991, while Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union. It bans the “abuse” of press freedom–making it illegal to incite war or violence, advocate drug use, or publish state secrets, hate speech, pornography, erroneous information, or unauthorized information about a person’s private life.

But there were signs of progress. Press coverage of the May 30 parliamentary elections, in which Sarkissian’s Unity Party won a landslide victory in elections that most observers considered fair, was generally “balanced and neutral,” according to outside media monitors.

In a November 3 speech, Aram Sarkissian, who succeeded his slain brother as prime minister, said in a speech that he rejected “the periodic calls to restrict freedom of speech, [and] the rights of the press….” It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Sarkissian will live by that bold statement.

June 8
Nikol Pashinian, Oragir
Male staff, Oragir ATTACKED

Authorities closed the opposition daily Oragir after editor Nikol Pashinian refused to obey court decisions in several civil- and criminal- defamation suits.

Oragir is affiliated with the opposition party Nor Ughi, headed by former education minister Ashot Bleyan, who is now in prison awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement. Pashinian believes that the authorities are trying to silence him for political reasons.

In March, Oragir lost a defamation suit brought by National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian after the paper published articles alleging rampant corruption in his ministry. Pashinian refused to print a retraction as ordered by the court.

In April, a Yerevan court ruled that Oragir had damaged the reputation of the local trading company Mika-Armenia when it published a series of articles alleging that the firm had won a government tender through Sarkisian’s patronage. The court ordered Oragir to print a retraction and pay a fine of US$25,000, but the newspaper refused to do so.

On June 4, the court brought criminal charges against Pashinian for failing to pay the fine or print the retractions. A few days later, the general prosecutor’s office filed additional criminal charges against Pashinian for allegedly insulting two Justice Ministry officers when they tried to confiscate his newspaper’s computer equipment. On June 8, authorities shut down the newspaper, sealed off its premises, and froze all its bank accounts.

In July, the paper resumed publication under another name, Haykakan Zhamanak, in an effort to avoid further lawsuits. On August 31, a Yerevan court sentenced Pashinian to one year in prison on five separate counts of slander, libel, and refusing to obey a court order that resulted from an earlier libel conviction.

Pashinian’s conviction was due in part to two articles published in the May 20 edition of Oragir. The first article alleged that the wife of legislator Artashes Gegamian had attempted to smuggle diamonds out of the country. (Pashinian claimed that the story was confirmed by customs officials.) The second article alleged that the son of Norik Aivazian, a prominent legislator, had been involved in a brawl.

Pashinian filed an appeal with the Armenian appeals court. The hearing began on October 16 and continued in 2000; Pashinian remained free during the proceedings. According to Pashinian, more than 30 members of Parliament have since petitioned the appellate judge to strike down all defamation charges against him.

This was the first criminal prosecution for libel of a journalist in post-Soviet Armenia. If the sentence is carried out, it will mark the first imprisonment of a journalist since Armenian independence in 1991.

In early September, the daily’s printing company, Pigran Net, refused to print Haykakan Zhamanak for nearly a week, claiming it had failed to pay its bills. Pashinian claims that his account was paid up and that the printer was acting under government pressure.

Pigran Net agreed to resume printing the paper in mid-September, shortly after CPJ sent a letter to the government protesting its harassment of Pashinian and Haykakan Zhamanak.

On December 23, several burly men burst into the editorial offices of Haykakan Zhamanak and beat up Pashinian, along with his male colleagues. The violent intrusion was apparently instigated by Gagik Tsarukian, a local brewer, who was angered by an article about him in that week’s issue of the paper.

Pashinian declined to press charges against Tsarukian, although he demanded a public apology. Armenian authorities said that they were not pursuing the investigation, because the newspaper staff had not filed any complaints. Under Armenian law, however, prosecutors may pursue a case even if no complaint has been filed.