Widespread poverty, polarized politics, and flawed legislation kept the media at the mercy of government officials and wealthy sponsors during 2001. Libel remained a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment, though it was not used against journalists during the year.
Dire economic conditions proved to be the greatest obstacle for the independent media in Armenia, where most people cannot afford to buy newspapers. Readership and print runs remained miniscule, particularly outside the capital, Yerevan. Advertising also remained an insignificant source of revenue. As a result, journalists censored themselves and slanted their reporting in exchange for the financial support of wealthy patrons.
In this politically polarized country, President Robert Kocharian and his supporters retained control of leading media outlets, including state television—the only nationally broadcast channel. The president’s political opponents control only a few publications. In addition, journalists continue to face significant security risks in covering the government’s investigation into the October 1999 armed attack on the Parliament, which left eight high-level politicians, including the prime minister, dead.
Relations between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan remained strained in 2001 due to tensions over the status of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a formerly autonomous region within Azerbaijan currently controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists. In November, the Yerevan Press Club temporarily halted journalist exchanges between the two countries due to growing anti-Armenian sentiment in leading Azerbaijani publications, local and international sources reported. However, both sides stated that cooperation would resume when the inflammatory statements subsided. By year’s end, the Azeri media had toned down their coverage of the disputed region, mostly because they had problems of their own working under the authoritarian regime of President Heydar Aliyev.
A controversial Law on Television and Radio adopted in October 2000 drew a barrage of domestic and international criticism in 2001 for granting the president excessive powers over the broadcast industry, including the State Broadcast Council (SBC) and the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR). Experts claimed the law would impede the development of independent broadcast media in Armenia by giving the president wide latitude to favor media outlets loyal to him. With presidential and parliamentary elections set for 2003, these broad new presidential powers seemed even more troubling.
In January 2001, the Constitutional Court ruled that several provisions of the law were unconstitutional. Later that month, in an unprecedented protest designed to push legislators to amend the law, all of Armenia’s television and radio stations stopped broadcasting for 45 minutes. On January 30, the Yerevan Press Club, Internews Armenia, and the Journalist Union of Armenia submitted proposed amendments to Parliament.
Lawmakers adopted amendments that simplified licensing procedures for producing television and radio programs and granted currently functioning TV and radio stations priority in frequency auctions. The parliament also passed measures designed to decrease the president’s control over the SBC and the NCTR.
The National Scout Movement (NSM) requested that criminal libel charges be filed against the Yerevan daily Haikakan Zhamanak, the Nayan Tapan news agency reported.
The NSM claimed that a February 21 article in the paper libeled the group by accusing it of supporting the October 27, 1999, attack on the Armenian parliament that left eight politicians dead, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian.
In March, the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected NSM’s request.
Interior Ministry officers seized unspecified equipment used by the opposition weekly Chorrord Ishkhanutyun since 1996, claiming it belonged to the ministry. An eyewitness told the newspaper Aravot that some of the equipment was a gift from former interior minister Vano Siradegian.
Siradegian also founded the Shamiram Party, of which Shoger Matevosian, the newspaper’s editor, is the president, according to CPJ sources. Chorrord Ishkhanutyun is well known for its sharp criticisms of President Robert Kocharian and his government.
Armenian tax police conducted an audit of the Ogostos Agency, publisher of the Yerevan-based opposition weekly Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, without the required written order from the Ministry of State Revenues, local sources reported. A large number of documents were seized.
The Ministry of State Revenues issued the official audit order two days later. The tax police then conducted another audit of the Ogostos Agency, which began on May 23.
This was illegal: according to the Law on Audits, tax authorities cannot inspect the same organization more than once each year. Officials claimed that the May 16 audit was merely a “visit.”
Shoger Matevosian, Chorrord Ishkhanutyun
Matevosian, editor of the opposition weekly Chorrord Ishkhanutyun and leader of the Shamiram Party, was summoned to the military prosecutor’s office for questioning, according to local sources.
She was interrogated about several recent articles that criticized the official investigation into the October 27, 1999, attack on the Armenian Parliament, which left the prime minister and seven other officials dead.
Vahagn Gukasian, free-lancer
A bus owned by opposition free-lance journalist Gukasian, which he used as a workshop where he manufactured leather accessories in order to support his journalism, was destroyed by fire.
Gukasian maintains that the fire came in deliberate retaliation for his work, specifically his investigative reports on the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament, which left the prime minister and seven other officials dead.
Gukasian’s most recent articles on the attack, published in the newspaper Haikakan Zhamanak, alleged that in addition to the five assailants who were on trial for the crime, a sixth remained at large. He also accused the Ministry of National Security of being involved in the attack, the Russia-based Prima Human Rights News Agency reported.
According to local and international reports, Gukasian received telephone threats following the publication of the stories.
In early September, law enforcement authorities closed the investigation into the fire without further explanation.
Law enforcement agents and tax police disrupted Ashtarak TV’s live interview with Ashot Manucharian, leader of the opposition political movement Front of National Accord and the political secretary of the Socialist Armenia Association, according to the Yerevan Press Club.
Prior to the broadcast, police surrounded the television station’s building and demanded that it close immediately. The police claimed that the station was unlicensed and had not paid its electricity bills.
Ashtarak TV broadcast the Manucharian interview anyway. Fifteen minutes into the interview, however, electricity to the station was cut off.
Two days later, the Republican Telecommunications Center and the National Security Ministry shut down Ashtarak TV and sealed its technical equipment over the licencing issue.
Vagram Botsinian, head of Ashtarak TV, maintains that the station was unable to obtain a license from the National Commission on Television and Radio due to bureaucratic stonewalling. The station remained closed at year’s end.