Attacks on the Press 2000: Armenia

ARMENIAN JOURNALISTS SUFFERED FROM LINGERING POLITICAL INSTABILITY last year, following the October 1999 terrorist attack on Parliament that left eight politicians dead, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian. In March 2000, the attempted assassination of Arkady Ghukasian, self-declared president of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, contributed to the general turmoil.

Advertising revenues are generally low in Armenia, and newspaper circulations tiny-the country’s top-selling weekly, Iravunk, sells just 13,500 copies, and its competitors sell far fewer. To survive, most media outlets have become beholden to one or another political or business interest.

In August, employees of the state news agency Armenpress held a one-day strike to protest the government’s failure to pay their salaries since March. The independent media, for their part, complained of occasional pressure from government officials. In September, the Snark news agency reported that its correspondent and several other independent journalists had been barred from open government sessions, in spite of being properly accredited.

On June 6 in the capital, Yerevan, free-lance reporter Vahagn Ghukasian was interrogated and beaten by Interior Ministry officials angered by his articles about their investigation into the October 1999 attack on Parliament. CPJ protested this attack in a June 19 letter to President Robert Kocharian.

Libel and defamation carry criminal penalties in Armenia, and offenders can be jailed for up to three years. On March 5, Nikol Pashinian, editor of the daily newspapers Oragir and, subsequently, Haykakan Zhamanak, received a suspended one-year sentence for libel. Pashinian later told CPJ that he was not allowed to leave the country or change his address without notifying the authorities.

On October 30, plainclothes security agents confiscated the footage of four television crews that had filmed the arrest of Arkady Vardanian, owner of the Russian-language newspaper Novoye Vremya. (Vardanian was accused of calling for a coup.) Police at the scene detained Mher Arshakian of the television station A1+, who was with Vardanian at the time of his arrest, for two-and-a-half hours of questioning.

Subsequently, authorities cut off power to a transmitter used by the independent Noyan Tapan television news station. Although officials cited technical problems to justify the 24-hour interruption, local journalists argued that it was an attempt to suppress news of Vardanian’s arrest.

On November 2, President Kocharian apologized for these incidents on national television and expressed strong support for press freedom. Journalists at Novoye Vremya, who broke with Vardanian after his alleged call for a coup, returned to work, and in mid-December the paper was appearing under new ownership.

On November 8, the Council of Europe, a 43-nation body that includes most Eastern and Western European states, ruled that Armenia and Azerbaijan would both be granted membership once they had brought their legal codes into line with European human rights standards. Armenia was instructed to amend its media law, among others. In October, Parliament adopted a new law governing public television and radio.

The law contains several troubling provisions, according to Cooperation and Democracy, a local group that monitors press freedom. The consultative council it established to oversee public broadcasting comprises presidential appointees with six-year terms, which will inevitably diminish the airtime available for dissenting voices. Local stations are also concerned about requirements that non-state TV channels broadcast only in Armenian after a three-year interim period and that 65 percent of their programming be original. In the republic’s dire economic straits, independents say, such demands will force them out of business.

One positive development was the breaking of the government’s near-monopoly on printing. The state-owned printing house was privatized early last year, albeit into the hands of its former director. A competitor emerged on November 1, when a private printing house opened in Yerevan.

Vahagn Ghukasian, free-lancer

According to local sources, Ghukasian, a free-lance contributor to the Yerevan newspapers Aravot, Hayakan Jamanak, and Chorrord Ishkhanutiun, was taken to the Interior Ministry, where two officers of the ministry’s Department of Criminal Investigation interrogated him and beat him severely. The journalist said he was beaten for two hours in the stomach, back, neck, and head.

Ghukasian said he was attacked in retaliation for publishing “An Observer’s Version,” a 20-page report that examined the official investigation into an October 27, 1999, attack on the Armenian Parliament. In the pamphlet, which was published on May 27, 2000, Ghukasian alleged that Hrachya Harutiun, head of the Department of Criminal Investigation, had been fired from the Ministry of National Security in 1994 for illegal possession of drugs and a firearm.

Ghukasian claimed that Harutiun was one of the two men who interrogated him on June 6. He added that his house and shoemaking shop were searched while he was being held at the Interior Ministry, and that a computer diskette and the remaining copies of his pamphlet were removed.

CPJ protested the incident in a June 19 letter to President Robert Kocharian.