President Robert Kocharian was reelected president in 2003 after a vote (the first since the country joined the Council of Europe in 2001) that was marred by irregularities and sharply criticised by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). For the first time in the history of independent Armenia, a TV debate between two of the candidates was shown live. But coverage of the two-stage voting on 19 February and 5 March was obstructed in many places and independent media journalists were harassed, set upon and physically attacked.
State-run media did not give balanced coverage to all candidates and openly backed Kocharian, while most independent media supported other candidates. The two independent TV stations, A1+ and Noyan Tapan, whose operating licences were cancelled in 2002 by the National Broadcasting Commission, were unable to broadcast. The commission is not independent and does not meet Council of Europe standards because all its members are appointed by the president.
Conflicting measures were passed by parliament. A freedom of information law was adopted on 23 September after two years of work with Council of Europe experts and national and international NGOs. It spelled out the rights of journalists and citizens to information and required public bodies to supply it. But a few days later, parliament approved on first reading a controversial press law that provoked sharp reaction from the media, who said they would suggest detailed improvements to it. The new criminal code that came into force on 1 August, included prison terms of up to three years for defamation.
New information on a journalist killed in 2002
The trial of 13 people accused of killing Tigran Naghdalian, head of the council of public TV and radio, in Yerevan on 28 December 2002, opened on 29 July 2003. They included businessman Armen Sarkisian, who is the brother of two former prime ministers (opposed to Kocharian) - Aram Sarkisian and Vazgen Sarkisian, who was killed in a commando attack on the parliament building in October 1999. The public prosecutor suspected Armen, who had been held since 15 March, of ordering the murder because he believed the journalist was involved in the attack that killed his brother. The other brother, Aram, charged that Armen’s trial was a bid to discredit the opposition in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections. Naghdalian, a major supporter of the president and a key figure at the TV station since 1998, was shot dead in front of his parents’ home by a mystery gunman. The authorities immediately called the murder political because the journalist had often criticised the opposition in a current affairs programme he presented.
Five journalists physically attacked
During the first round of the presidential election on 19 February 2003, an official at the Nar-Dos School polling station 356/16 in Yerevan seized the camera and injured the hand of freelance journalist Susanna Pogosian, who was there with reporter Gideon Lichfield of the British weekly The Economist.
The same day, Goar Verziryan, of the opposition National Democratic Union’s weekly paper Aizhm, was thrown against a wall at the Shirvanzade School polling station in Yerevan by people who seized a tape recording she was making about defects in the voting procedure. Others hit two journalists from the TV station Shant and took away their videotapes as they were filming a man putting several voting slips into a ballot box.
Mher Galechian, of the twice-weekly opposition paper Chorrord Ishxanutiun, was beaten up on 29 April by two men who came to the paper’s offices in Yerevan. He was hospitalised with head injuries and an investigation was launched. The men had come to the offices three days earlier to complain about a 25 April article that accused Karlos Petrosian, head of the state security service, of building himself a villa in shady circumstances. The day of the attack, the paper had printed an article reporting the earlier visit.
Gayaneh Mukoyan (editor) and Rafael Hovakimyan (managing editor) of the weekly Or, were attacked in front of Mukoyan’s home by four thugs who boxed in their car, said they were police, ordered them to get out and then hit them. Ms Mukoyan said the attack was probably linked to articles the previous month about organised crime.
New information about a journalist attacked in 2002
Investigative journalist Mark Grigorian, former correspondent in Armenia for Reporters Without Borders and deputy head of the Caucasus Media Institute, received a letter from the prosecutor-general’s office in late February 2003 saying the case file on a grenade attack that seriously wounded him in a street of the capital on 22 October 2002 had been closed since no suspect had been found four months after the attack. Grigorian had blamed the attempt to kill him on people opposed to his enquiry into the 27 October 1999 commando attack on parliament, in which eight people were killed.
Two journalists threatened
Freelance journalist Vahagn Ghukasian announced on 24 January 2003 he was leaving the country because of police harassment after he found "definitive proof" that top officials were involved in the October 1999 commando attack on parliament. He later left the country.
John Hughes, editor of the online weekly Armenianow, informed military prosecutor Gagik Jhangirian in a 4 November letter that one of his journalists, Janna Alexanian, had received phone threats from the father of two soldiers murdered on 6 August in Vanadzor and about whom the journalist had written an article on 15 August. Their father accused her of defending the killers. Hughes said the complaint was in fact triggered by Alexanian writing that the soldiers’ family was involved in the petrol business. The threats stopped soon after the letter was sent.
Harassment and obstruction
The central elections board refused to accredit any online media during the two-stage presidential and parliamentary elections in February, March and May 2003. It had ruled on 22 August 2002 that only media registered with the justice ministry could be recognised. But since websites are not legally considered media, online newspapers are not obliged to register.
Lilit Vardanian, an official of polling station 073/26 in Eshmiadzin (20 km from Yerevan), refused to allow Karina Asatrian, of the independent TV station A1+, and her cameraman Robert Kharazian to film the first round of voting in the presidential election on 19 February. The journalists were then attacked by people who damaged their camera and chased them out of the polling station.
Diana Markosian, also of A1+, was stopped the same day by the head of polling station 0391/17 in Yerevan, Ararat Rshtubi. Police helped him remove the journalist.
Relay transmission of the Russian station NTV by the firm Paradise was suspended between 26 February and 17 March, officially for technical reasons. But opposition activists suspected it was cut off because the station had shown opposition demonstrations against election irregularities.
Nane Adjemyan, of the TV station Kentron TV, was victimised in late February because President Kocharian’s campaign officials did not like her impartial coverage of the campaign. After she reported on a press conference by opposition candidate Stepan Dermichian, who highlighted violations of election rules, the station’s news editor, Nikolaï Grigorian, asked the journalist to take some time off. When she found out that one of Kocharian’s election team had earlier called the station management to complain about her coverage, she resigned on 26 February.
Only two state-run TV cameramen were allowed to film live Kocharian’s swearing-in for another term as president on 9 April. All other journalists, pro-government or independent, were forced to cover it from a TV screen elsewhere in the building.
Parliament amended the criminal code on 18 April to further restrict press freedom. Articles 135 (defamation) and 136 (insults) now provide up to three years imprisonment and fines equivalent to between 100 and 200 times a person’s minimum monthly salary (between 750 and 1,500 euros). Article 318 calls for two years in prison and a fine equal to between 200 and 400 minimum salaries (between 1,500 and 3,000 euros).
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), along with diplomats, human rights organisations and journalists, sent an open letter of concern on 19 June to the new spokesman for parliament, Arthur Baghdasarian, who said on 25 June the code should be amended because it was unfair that penalties for defaming government officials and ordinary citizens were different. But no action had been taken by the end of the year.
Officials of the state telecommunications authority in Alarverdi (Lori region) cut off broadcasts of the local TV station Ankyun+3 on 20 May officially because it had not complied with technical requirements and not broadcast government programmes. The station’s editor, Hrachya Papinyan, said the cut-off came five days before parliamentary elections and was for political reasons, since the station had not supported candidate Hovhannes Qochinyan, brother of the regional administrator. A week earlier, tax officials began inspecting the station’s accounts. It was able to resume broadcasting on 21 May.
The National Broadcasting Commission refused once again, on 18 July, to grant operating licences to the country’s two main independent TV stations, A1+ and Noyan Tapan, after bids had been received for frequencies to serve the Yerevan region, on grounds that their programme proposals were not good enough. The two general-interest stations, which provide a balanced alternative to pro-government and state-run stations, have not been able to broadcast since 2 April 2002, when the commission refused to renew their licences. They had also been unsuccessful in an earlier round of bidding for seven-year licences.
Police seized a videotape on 30 July from ALM TV cameraman Narek Martirosyan, who had just filmed them roughing up a woman who had been demonstrating in front of the presidential palace in Yerevan.
Parliament approved on first reading on 24 September a controversial new press law, which obliges media to declare their funding sources (article 13) and limits the shareholding in them of commercial companies and foreigners and restricts the distribution of foreign newspapers in the country (article 9).
These clauses were seen by journalists as weapons for the government to use against media it did not like. The law also curbs press freedom in time of war, if there is a threat to national security and if a state of emergency is declared. The new law drew strong reactions from several journalists’ organisations, which decided to suggest amendments to the measure.