The Armenian government failed to protect journalists during violent demonstrations in April against President Robert Kocharian. In some cases, authorities were directly involved in attacks on the press.
On April 5, police stood by during an opposition rally while two dozen men attacked several journalists and cameramen. A Yerevan court convicted two men of the attack, fining them 100,000 drams (US$182) each for “deliberately damaging property,” the journalists’ cameras. Some victims and the opposition media claimed that the trial was merely a government attempt to create the appearance of accountability, the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
During another opposition rally the next week, police destroyed the cameras of journalists from the Russian TV station Channel One and the daily Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time). At least four journalists were injured when police officers used batons, stun grenades, and water jets to disperse several thousand demonstrators.
The impunity surrounding these attacks made journalists more vulnerable. In August, Mkhitar Khachatryan, a photojournalist with Fotolur news agency who was reporting on environmentally damaging housing construction in central Armenia,
was beaten by an unidentified man who threatened him with death and forced him to hand over his photos. Khachatryan had been taking photos near the mansion of a former police chief.
Although a private citizen was sentenced in October to six months in prison for the assault, a security guard for the police chief who reportedly ordered the attack was neither detained nor charged, the Yerevan-based Association of Investigative Journalists in Armenia reported.
Television coverage of the spring opposition rallies and other politically sensitive issues favored Kocharian, who ensured that TV stations remained in the hands of government supporters or those who would not criticize his policies. For the second year in a row, politicized media regulators kept A1+, an independent and influential TV station that has sharply criticized government policies, off the air. The National Council on Television and Radio—a government body that regulates broadcasting frequencies and is stacked with Kocharian supporters—shuttered A1+ in April 2002 and has since rejected eight applications from the station for a broadcasting license.
Broadcasting authorities also kept local television channels that were moderately independent—such as Yerevan station Noyan Tapan, which was also shuttered in April 2002—off the air. No new frequency tenders are planned until 2009.
Unlike television, the print media enjoy greater autonomy from government control, but most publications are controlled by political parties and wealthy businessmen, compromising their editorial independence and professional standards. According to the U.S.-based media training organization IREX ProMedia, low salaries encourage widespread corruption among reporters.
Journalists also faced declining legal protection, with the government continuing to ignore calls from press freedom organizations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws added to the Criminal Code in April 2003. The statutes threaten journalists with up to three years in prison and have increased self-censorship, according to IREX.