Attacks on press freedom increased amid the uncertainties of the run-up to the 19February 2003 presidential election and violence against journalists grew towards the end of the year. Tigran Naghdalian, a close ally of President Robert Kocharian and a key figure in the public TV station, was killed and investigative journalist Mark Grigorian was seriously injured in a grenade attack.
Independent media were severely hampered by the national broadcasting authority’s policy of assigning frequencies. The cancellation of the operating licences of the two main independent TV stations set off strong reaction both inside and outside the country. Protest demonstrations called for the resignation of Kocharian and the United States expressed concern for the future of the independent media.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged immediate attribution of frequencies so that all TV companies would be operating before the 2003 election. On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, President Kocharian was named an "enemy of press freedom" by the National Press Club.
However, legal progress was made when parliament gave a first reading on 23October to a bill that would be the country’s first press freedom law in line with Armenia’s promises to the Council of Europe. But the law was criticised by the OSCE and by the Yerevan Press Club, which said a clause about the government’s obligation to provide information to journalists should have been included.
A journalist killed
The head of the governing board of the public TV station, Tigran Naghdalian, who was also the presenter of the political comment programme "Orakarg," was gunned down in front of his parents’ home in Yerevan on 28 December and died in hospital shortly afterwards. President Kocharian called an urgent meeting of security officials the same day to push a speedy investigation of the murder. Naghdalian had been a major supporter of the president and a key figure at the TV station since 1998. He began his career in 1990 on the station’s programme "Haylur," which was shut down by the authorities a year later. He then became head of the Haylur news agency and set up another one, Fact, in 1994. From 1995 to 1997, he worked for the Armenian bureau of Radio Liberty. At the end of the year, the reason for the killing was still a mystery.
Artashes Mehrabian, founder of Abovian TV, and the station’s chief, Azniv Shizmeshian, were severely beaten by thugs on 24 August. The station managers said the attack was ordered by the mayor of Abovian, Karo Israelian, whose policies the station had regularly criticised. On 6 September, three thugs warned Mehrabian to see that the station actively supported the mayor in the run-up to the following month’s local elections and told him to leave town if he wanted to avoid "something terrible" happening to him and his family. The station asked that case be investigated by the Yerevan prosecutor’s office and not local officials, so as to ensure impartiality.
Investigative journalist Mark Grigorian, the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in Armenia and deputy head of the Caucasus Media Institute, was seriously wounded in a grenade attack on him in a street of the capital on 22 October. He blamed the murder attempt on people opposed to his enquiry into the 27 October 1999 commando attack on the national parliament, in which eight people were killed, including prime minister Vazgen Sarkissian, parliament spokesman Karen Demirchian and other top political figures. At the end of the year, the enquiry into the attack on Grigorian was still going on.
Pressure and obstruction
The national broadcasting authority announced on 2 April that the firm Charm, which specialises in entertainment programmes, had won the licence to run the TV station A1+ against three other bidders. A1+ had regularly featured opposition figures in its news programmes. Members of the broadcasting authority are appointed by the president. Outgoing A1+ chief Mesrop Movsesian said the change of operator was because of the station’s criticism of Kocharian’s government. By the end of the year, A1+ was still waiting to be assigned a frequency.
All copies of the daily pro-opposition paper Aravot were stolen by unidentified people on 31 October. Editor Aram Abrahamian said the theft was connected with an article accusing Hrach Abgarian, an associate of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, of breaking the law in the purchase of a housing complex.
On 18 November, the business arbitration court suspended bidding for nine TV operating licences that had opened 10 days earlier. This followed a complaint by the head of the independent station Noyan Tapan, Tigran Harutunian, against the national broadcasting authority, which had rejected his bid for supposed administrative reasons. The halt in the bidding process was sharply criticised by A1+ boss Mesrop Movsesian, who said the lawsuit was an opportunity for the authorities to further delay assigning a frequency for his station, whose operating licence was cancelled on 2 April.