Attacks on the Press 2009: Armenia

Top Developments
• Broadcast media controlled by government or its allies.
• Numerous assaults reported, but police do little.

Key Statistic
12: Broadcast license applications filed by independent outlet A1+. None approved.

The nation remained polarized by the fraud-marred 2008 presidential election won by Serzh Sargsyan, with large public protests and violent government reprisals continuing well into 2009. The global economic crisis caused layoffs in the mining industry and a decline in remittances from Russia, heightening public frustrations. The government sought to suppress critical debate over these issues, and journalists faced intolerance, hostility, and violence.


Main Index

Regional Analysis:
Why a killing in Chechnya
is an international issue

Country Summaries
Other developments

The government maintained control over most broadcast media, the primary news source in a poverty-afflicted country with poor newspaper distribution and low Internet penetration. The Council on Public Radio and Television, composed of presidential appointees, continued to set editorial guidelines for H1 state television, ensuring the station generated pro-government reports. Most private radio and television stations were owned by politicians and businessmen with close ties to the government, leading to significant self-censorship by journalists and limited critical news reporting on the airwaves, CPJ research showed.

One independent news outlet remained off the air. In February, a Yerevan appellate court dismissed lawsuits filed by the media outlet A1+ that sought reconsideration of its broadcast license applications. The station, pulled from the airwaves in 2002 in reprisal for its critical news reports, has seen a dozen license applications rejected by the government’s broadcast regulator. (A1+ has continued operating as an independent online news agency.) The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2008 that the regulator violated the European Convention on Human Rights by repeatedly rejecting the applications without explanation.

Other forms of government obstruction were reported on a regular basis. In January, bailiffs in a Yerevan court prevented journalists from attending the trial of seven opposition activists charged with illegal participation in 2008 protests, according to local press reports. In August, the police chief in the northwestern city of Gyumri prevented a crew from Shant TV, a private station, from covering protests in front of the mayor’s office concerning the closing of a local market, local press reports said. That same month, parliament issued new media accreditation rules that authorized suspensions of journalists whose reports “do not correspond to reality” or that disrespect the “lawful interests, honor, and dignity” of members of parliament, according to local press reports. Parliamentary staff members were given wide discretion to administer the rules.

Violent attacks against journalists continued amid a climate of impunity. On March 13, security guards at the State Linguistics University in Yerevan knocked freelance photographer Gagik Shamshian to the ground and kicked him after he tried to photograph students protesting alleged faculty corruption, according to press reports. Shamshian was hospitalized for six days with internal bleeding. A security guard was briefly questioned by police but was not charged.

In April, three unidentified assailants attacked Argishti Kivirian, editor of the independent news Web site Armenia Today, outside his home in Yerevan, according to press reports. The assailants beat him with clubs, leaving the editor hospitalized with a concussion and severe bruising. Kivirian’s colleagues and family linked the attack to his professional activities, noting that he had received prior work-related threats. Lusine Sahakaian, a prominent defense lawyer and the editor’s wife, criticized police for failing to collect evidence at the crime scene, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Armenia Today’s Web site was plagued by denial-of-service attacks throughout the year—including a series of attacks that coincided with the assault on Kivirian.

A third attack also generated no arrests and little evident police investigation. Nver Mnatsakanian, a prominent commentator for Shant TV, was punched and knocked to the ground by two unidentified men as he was walking home in Yerevan on the evening of May 6, according to press reports. Mnatsakanian, who was forced to cancel his show for two days, criticized police for claiming the attack was the result of mistaken identity. 

Attacks spiked in May, several of them related to a Yerevan mayoral election that was marred by allegations of fraud. Gohar Vezirian, a reporter for the opposition newspaper Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, was beaten by supporters of pro-government candidate Gagik Beglarian after she informed an election commissioner that the candidate’s supporters had unlawfully entered a polling station in Yerevan, according to the news Web site EurasiaNet. Election officials stood by when pro-government supporters threatened Nelly Gregorian, a reporter for the independent daily Aravot, confiscated her camera and erased photos at a polling station in Yerevan, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Law enforcement officials were either ambivalent or hostile to the press. Col. Hovhannes Tamamian, a senior police investigator, told reporters at a May 8 press conference that police were working hard to arrest assailants in the attacks—but he suggested journalists should arm themselves in defense, according to international press reports. In August, when prosecutors were angered by media criticism of an investigation into the activities of an outspoken environmental activist, a spokesman for the prosecutor general warned journalists that the office “regularly sends publications to police for assessment,” IWPR reported. The comment was seen as a veiled threat that journalists would be harassed if they continued reporting on the case.

Arman Babadzhanian, 33, editor of the opposition daily Zhamanak Yerevan and a critic of law enforcement officials, was released from prison in August after doctors diagnosed a brain tumor, according to press reports. In 2006, he was sentenced to four years in prison after publishing an article that questioned the independence of the Yerevan prosecutor’s office. Babadzhanian had been convicted of forging documents to skirt military service; he did not dispute the allegation, but he and press freedom advocates, including CPJ, said the prosecution was selective and retaliatory. Babadzhanian underwent surgery outside the country and was recovering in late year.