Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Armenia
As of December 31, 1998

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Self-censorship pervaded the Armenian press throughout the year. In private, journalists seem eager to talk about the subjects they say are best not reported in the media, such as the numerous military executions of Azeri prisoners taken in fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave under Azerbaijani sovereignty, and the influence of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkissian as the country's political kingmaker.

In March, Robert Kocharian, Armenia's prime minister and former president of the internationally unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, was elected president of Armenia. The voting took place after the forced resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian over his willingness to negotiate with Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh -- the central issue in Armenian politics. Based on the reports of 180 foreign election observers, international organizations officially denounced ballot-box stuffing and other serious flaws in the presidential voting, but they concluded that Kocharian would have won anyway.

Despite continued tense governmental relations with the press, there were clear improvements over the year. The European Institute for the Media (EIM), a D&uulm;sseldorf-based communications research group which monitored press coverage of the presidential elections both in 1996 and in 1998, noted a marked reduction in the open slant of state television news -- by far the leading source of political information for Armenians -- toward the governmental candidate. But somewhat more subtle forms of bias continued, including frequent rebroadcasts of a tough satire of the leading opposition candidate, former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian, shown without disclosing that it was a paid political advertisement.

A1 Plus, a private television station, said one of its news teams was assaulted while filming fraudulent presidential vote-counting and that a camera was damaged. A1 Plus also reported an attempted break-in which station staffers said was intended to prevent the film from being broadcast.

Upon election, Kocharian moved to improve presidential relations with the press. He lifted a ban imposed in 1994 by his predecessor on the publications of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Dashnak Party. He instituted monthly off-the-record briefings with top editors -- in sharp contrast with the almost inaccessible Ter-Petrossian. And he also abolished the value-added tax on press distribution, pledged to consider dropping it on newsprint, and reduced rent on news media premises to maintenance charges only.

Nevertheless, old habits died hard. Defense Minister Sarkissian -- widely seen as the real power in Armenia‹and his staff remained unreachable. An experienced journalist noted that the Defense Ministry's press center handles queries by simply never answering its official telephone number. During a public meeting President Kocharian held with Armenian writers, several participants objected because an interpreter was translating the president's words for a visiting U.S. journalist.

There has been a decline in defamation suits against journalists, but they report a steady stream of phone calls, official requests about what to cover, and warnings from officials and influential people. The occasional (often unreported) beating of an editor or reporter reinforces the tendency toward journalistic caution on sensitive subjects. Censorship is formally forbidden, but unofficial forms abound. These include government control over most of the classic choke points, such as printing, newsprint supply, distribution, allocation of broadcast frequencies, taxation, and assignment of premises.

Journalists say that Sarkissian has personally beat a chief editor whose paper's articles on Nagorno-Karabakh displeased him. When a foreign correspondent submitted a written question to President Kocharian asking whether he thinks the defense minister's comportment is good for Armenia's image abroad, a presidential spokesman declined to submit it, explaining that it was "not interesting."

Sarkissian is not the only official to show contempt for the press. For example, in July, the independent television station Ar was called to cover the police evicting a family from its apartment. At the scene, police beat the crew and broke two of its cameras. The Interior Minister said he would pay for the damaged equipment, but had not done so as of early 1999.

Because of poor economic conditions and low wages, most Armenians cannot afford to buy daily newspapers, and print press circulations are tiny. News kiosks rent copies of papers by the half hour. The state press distribution monopoly, Hay Mamoul, rarely provides next-day delivery of the national press to provincial newsstands. It pays publications for sales and subscriptions with enormous, crippling delays.

A press law passed by the Armenian Supreme Soviet in 1991 remains on the books. It bans the "abuse" of press freedom -- making it illegal to publish state secrets, incitement to war or violence, hate speech, pornography, advocacy of drug use, erroneous or unverified information, or unauthorized information about a person's private life. Violations are punishable by a six-month suspension of the allegedly offending news media. (There were no suspensions during 1998.) Draft revisions of the law, even those proposed by groups of democratic journalists, have contained similarly restrictive clauses. For example, a draft freedom of information law, written in 1998 by a human rights group, would bar the publication of anything the government defines as a state secret.

There were 904 media outlets on the official register of the Armenian Justice Ministry in 1998, 141 of them added during the year. But very few -- about 70 newspapers, 20 national and local television stations, and five FM radio stations -- appeared regularly.

| Attacks on the Press in 1998 |