In the run-up to presidential elections scheduled for 2003, President Robert Kocharian, who is seeking another term, muzzled dissenting voices in the press and called for more compliant media coverage of government policies. As a result, journalists continued to face criminal prosecution, attacks, and censorship. Meanwhile, poor economic conditions drove some members of the press to ignore journalistic standards and sell their skills to the highest bidder–even if that meant being a mouthpiece for a powerful politician or businessman.
2002 began with controversy. On February 7, the executive branch approved and sent to Parliament a vague legislative proposal called the Law on Mass Information, which would increase state control of the media. Local journalists immediately decried the measure, which, among other things, would introduce licensing procedures and make it easier to suspend a publication. On March 1, several leading Armenian publications launched a protest against the proposal. By the end of the month, the Justice Ministry had submitted a revised draft law that remedied some of the more contentious points in the legislation. The wording remained vague, however, and protests against the draft law continued. At year’s end, the legislation was still being discussed.
In another legislative development, on October 23, Parliament adopted the Law on Freedom of Information, which would regulate access to government information. However, politicians, journalists, and press freedom organizations all said the draft was flawed, and it was sent back to committee for review.
In February, the National Council on Television and Radio (NCTR), whose members are appointed by the president, announced a frequency tender, as prescribed by the 2000 Press Law. The NCTR awarded the frequency for A1+, an independent television channel known for its criticism of Kocharian, to a company that allegedly has government ties. A1+ was forced off the air at midnight on April 2. Armenian and international press freedom and human rights groups protested the NCTR’s decision, calling it a politically motivated attack on the media. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, rallied to A1+’s defense on April 5. The protests continued throughout the month. A1+’s management embarked on a futile legal battle, petitioning the Economic Court to block the tender, citing procedural violations. The court ruled against the channel on April 25. The company unsuccessfully appealed in May, and again in June.
In late April, the independent Noyan Tapan television station sued the NCTR in an effort to retain its broadcasting frequency, which the NCTR had granted to another television company in the April 2 tender. But in May, the Economic Court ruled against this station, too, and the Appeals Court rejected the channel’s appeal in July. A group of private citizens also sued the NCTR, claiming that its decisions against A1+ and Noyan Tapan television violated their right to information. The court rejected this lawsuit on September 2, and again in late November.
The NCTR continued to obstruct Noyan Tapan’s pursuit of a frequency. On November 8, the council refused to accept Noyan Tapan’s entry in a future broadcasting license tender. The television company protested, and in December, the Economic Court ruled in Noyan Tapan’s favor, obliging the NCTR to accept the station’s candidacy within three days. The NCTR appealed the ruling. At year’s end, the case was pending.
The controversy surrounding the frequency tenders, along with the proposed Law on Mass Information, caused the National Press Club, an Armenian press freedom organization, to name President Kocharian an “Enemy of the Press.”
In a stark reminder of the security risks journalists face for reporting on sensitive subjects, free-lance reporter Mark Grigorian suffered serious injuries when a grenade was thrown at him in Yerevan on October 22. Grigorian had been working on a highly sensitive article about the 1999 attack on the Parliament, which left several politicians–including the prime minister–dead. The journalist, who suffered injuries to his head and chest, underwent surgery and was released from the hospital six days after the attack.
The independent television channel A1+ lost its broadcast frequency and was forced off the air. The National Committee on Television and Radio (NCTR), whose members are appointed by President Robert Kocharian, awarded the A1+ frequency to the entertainment company Sharm, which has close government ties, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
A1+ is known for its critical stance toward the government of Kocharian, who is up for re-election in 2003. The government maintains that the NCTR’s decision was impartial. Under a new press law, passed in October 2000, all television stations were required to reapply for their broadcast frequencies. In February, the NCTR announced that a public frequency tender would be
held in April.
On April 1, the parent company of A1+, Meleteks, petitioned the Economic Court to block the tender, citing procedural violations. The court ruled against the channel on
April 25. The company unsuccessfully appealed in May and again in June. A group of private citizens also sued the NCTR, claiming that the court’s decision violated their right to information. The court rejected this lawsuit on September 2, as well as the appeal in late November.
Meanwhile, A1+ was forced off the air at midnight on April 2. That same day, several hundred A1+ supporters protested the move in the streets of the capital, Yerevan. Three days later, nearly 10,000 protesters gathered in Yerevan to demand the return of A1+. The channel remained off the air at year’s end.
Mark Grigorian, free-lance
Free-lance journalist Grigorian suffered serious shrapnel wounds to the head and chest from a grenade thrown at him at around 10:30 p.m. as he walked past the entrance of the Yerevan Choreography School in the capital, Yerevan. He was taken to a local hospital, where he underwent surgery to stop bleeding in his lungs. At year’s end, the journalist was recovering at home.
Grigorian told Public Television of Armenia from his hospital bed that he saw “a young man running away” seconds after the grenade exploded. The journalist has been working on an article about an October 1999 attack on the Armenian Parliament that left eight high-level politicians, including the prime minister, dead.
Grigorian had recently interviewed several witnesses and politicians for the story, which he planned to publish on October 27, the third anniversary of the massacre, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Since the Parliament shooting, several Armenian journalists have been harassed or attacked in retaliation for their coverage of the government’s investigation into the incident.
The Yerevan Prosecutor General’s Office announced that the Interior Ministry has opened an investigation into the grenade attack. Grigorian is also deputy director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, which conducts training courses for journalists in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
The National Committee on Television and Radio (NCTR), whose members are appointed by President Robert Kocharian, refused to accept independent television station Noyan Tapan’s entry in a broadcasting license tender set for November 19. The commission claimed the application was prepared incorrectly.
Armenian civic and press freedom groups, as well as journalists, decried the decision as a government effort to prevent independent media from broadcasting their views. Noyan Tapan protested the NCTR’s decision in court, and in early December, Armenia’s Economic Court ruled in the station’s favor, obliging the NCTR to accept the station’s candidacy within three days. The NCTR appealed the ruling, which was pending at year’s end.
Tirgran Nagdalian, Armenia Public Television