In 2003, presidential and parliamentary elections dominated Armenia’s political scene. Though President Robert Kocharian managed to retain power, tens of thousands of demonstrators angered by widespread electoral fraud took to the streets in protest before the March runoff, calling for his resignation.
While state television did not cover the mass rallies, it did broadcast one unprecedented event on the eve of the second round of voting: a live debate between the two presidential candidates. Though this was seen as a positive sign, the runoff was marred by fraud, according to U.S. and Western observers.
There were several blows to media freedom in 2003, starting with an April amendment to the Criminal Code making libel a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. The new code also carries harsher punishments for insulting government officials. More disturbing, in December, Parliament passed a new bill that requires media outlets to disclose their sources of information in closed court hearings if it is determined to relate to national security.
But the biggest threat to media freedom was the continued ban on the independent television station A1+. In a country where 85 percent of the population receives its news from television, the A1+ case has become a touchstone for press freedom. Known for its professional standards and harsh criticism of the government, A1+ was yanked off the air in April 2002 in the country’s first ever frequency tender, a government procedure that allows for broadcast licenses to be issued (or, in this case, reissued) in an allegedly fair and free process. In an attempt to silence A1+, the president had stacked the National Council on Television and Radio, the government body that oversees broadcast frequencies and licenses, with loyalists who rejected the station’s application.
A1+ made several attempts to regain its frequency in a series of tenders, but the government’s Broadcasting Commission repeatedly rejected the station’s bid in favor of outlets owned by supporters of the president. The first tender of 2003, scheduled for January, was postponed, preventing viewers from accessing A1+ before the presidential elections. While the Broadcasting Commission cited financial concerns and technical reasons for repeatedly rejecting A1+’s bid, many believe that the order came directly from Kocharian.
Armenia’s print media enjoy relative freedom but are largely controlled by political parties and wealthy businessmen, which dampens outlets’ objectivity. The print press is also plagued by low professional standards. According to IREX ProMedia, a U.S.-based media training organization, journalists in Armenia often take bribes for writing articles.
Meanwhile, the ongoing investigations and trials in two high-profile murder cases captivated the country. In December 2002, the head of Armenian Public Television (APT), Tigran Nagdalian, was shot dead in the capital, Yerevan. A loyal supporter of Kocharian, Nagdalian had been scheduled to testify in the other prominent murder case: the trial of six men accused of gunning down eight high-ranking politicians in Parliament in 1999.
The two cases were linked by political intrigue and speculation. Some families of those murdered in Parliament suggest that Nagdalian was killed because he had information about Kocharian’s involvement in the murders. The presidential administration countered with the theory that the opposition killed Nagdalian because he had used his job at APT, the country’s most watched TV station, to promote Kocharian and marginalize his rivals. Several months after the murder, the younger brother of a political rival of Kocharian’s was arrested for hiring a gunman to kill Nagdalian. Opposition members have condemned the arrest as politically motivated.