Harassment of journalists and self-censorship among the news media intensified before and after a flawed February 2008 presidential election. The countryís authoritarian president, Robert Kocharian, imposed a state of emergency after the balloting to suppress demonstrations and block independent news reporting, a move that allowed him to deliver the presidency to a hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.
In early year, authorities sought to ensure that news coverage supported Sargsyan’s candidacy. In the weeks ahead of the February 19 vote, most of the country’s state and private media followed the lead of H1 state television by praising Sargsyan and criticizing Levon Ter-Petrosian, the leading opposition candidate who served as the first post-Soviet president from 1991 to 1998. Armenian State Radio stopped rebroadcasts of Armenian-language news programs from the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Only residents of the capital, Yerevan, and several regional cities had regular access to alternative sources of information, such as the Web site of the A1+ news agency.
Sargsyan won the election with 52 percent of the vote. But observers from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—a pan-European human rights monitoring group—found the process marred by voting irregularities and ballot-counting abuses. Two journalists—Hovsep Hovsepian of A1+ and Lusine Barsegian of the Yerevan daily Haikakan Zhamanak—were assaulted and robbed by unidentified people when they attempted to document abuses at a polling station in Yerevan.
Tens of thousands of Ter-Petrosian’s supporters peacefully protested in central Yerevan after reports of electoral fraud emerged. After a week of demonstrations—and statements from several influential government officials in support of the opposition candidate—Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency on March 1, banning all public rallies and independent news reporting. The order placed Ter-Petrosian under virtual house arrest as police cordoned off his home and barred visitors. Hundreds of police officers moved in to violently disperse demonstrators in central Yerevan. Gagik Shamshian, a photojournalist for the daily Aravot and the weekly Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, and Artak Egiazarian, a reporter with the Yerevan daily Aik, were roughed up by police and detained for several hours, according to local press reports.
The state of emergency required news media to cite only official sources when reporting on national politics, an edict that opened the way for authorities to crack down aggressively on independent media. Police in Yerevan surrounded and temporarily sealed off the editorial offices of A1+, barring journalists from entering or leaving the building for one evening. Authorities banned three private radio stations—Radio Yerevan, Radio Hay, and Ardzagank Radio—from broadcasting news from RFE/RL. The private television station ArmNews, which carried CNN and Euronews programming, interrupted reports on Armenia with commercials. Security officers were stationed at printing presses to censor newspapers, while authorities ordered Internet service providers to block access to the Web sites of A1+, RFE/RL, the independent newspapers Aravot and Haikakan Zhamanak, and YouTube (where demonstrators had posted homemade videos of police violence).
The harsh media restrictions and widespread public fear made independent reporting nearly impossible. “I tried just speaking to people informally, but they refused to speak with me, saying they’re afraid of being persecuted by the authorities,” said Karine Simonian, an RFE/RL journalist in the northern city of Vanadzor.
The news vacuum allowed pro-government information and propaganda to dominate the airwaves as the Supreme Court rejected two cases challenging Sargsyan’s electoral victory. A March 13 decree, signed by Kocharian, allowed journalists to return to work only if they did not report “obviously false or destabilizing information” about domestic politics. When the state of emergency expired on March 21, access to most Internet sites was restored and newspapers were allowed to resume publishing. But police continued to harass opposition activists and journalists reporting on opposition rallies; local authorities in Gyumri shuttered Gala TV in retaliation for its critical news reporting. The crackdown allowed Sargsyan to be sworn into office on April 9, despite widespread public discontent over the conduct of the elections.
Regulation of broadcast media remained highly politicized thanks to government loyalists serving on the National Council on Television and Radio (NCTR). Journalists with A1+, a one-time broadcaster that transformed itself into an Internet-based news agency, know that better than most. The NCTR revoked the broadcast license of A1+ in 2002 because of the station’s critical reporting and has since rejected a dozen applications filed by the news agency. In June 2008, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled that the NCTR’s repeated denials without explanation had violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The court instructed the government to pay the station 20,000 euros (US$31,000) in damages.
The government responded by delaying payment of the fine and by drafting an amendment to the Law on Radio and Television that effectively froze television licensing until 2010, according to local press reports. In September, the amendment was approved by parliament and signed by the president, preventing A1+ from participating in any new television license tenders.
The prosecutor general’s office selectively enforced the law, punishing critical journalists while failing to prosecute attacks against the press. Haikakan Zhamanak’s Barsegian was hospitalized with a concussion in August after being attacked by two unidentified assailants. Barsegian had just written several articles critical of government supporters. In November, three assailants beat prominent investigative journalist Edik Baghdasarian, editor of the news magazine Hetq, as he was walking on a Yerevan street. His most recent reports concerned corruption in the mining industry. No arrests were reported in the attacks. Arman Babadzhanian, editor of Zhamanak Yerevan, remained imprisoned during 2008 after being convicted in 2006 of forging documents to avoid military service. His four-year sentence was widely seen as excessive and given in retaliation for a 2006 article criticizing the prosecutor general.
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