YPC Weekly Newsletter

2009


US DEPARTMENT OF STATE ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND PRESS IN ARMENIA IN 2008

On February 25 the US Department of State released country report on human
rights practices in different countries of the world in 2008, prepared by the
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Addressing the freedom of speech and press situation in Armenia, the US Department
of State noted in particular that “the Constitution provides for freedom of
speech and freedom of the press, but the government generally did not respect
these rights in practice” and “there were incidents of violence, intimidation,
and self-censorship in the press”. The report also says about “progovernment
and antiopposition media bias” in the run-up to the presidential election; censorship
and suspended freedom of speech and press during the state of emergency on March
1-21, 2008; lack of political diversity, particularly on television; the adopted
amendments to the RA Law “On Television and Radio” imposing a two-year moratorium
on the issuance of new television and radio broadcasting licenses, and “further
reducing prospects for greater media pluralism”.

In the opinion of the report authors, except during the state of emergency
period, “the print media generally expressed a wide variety of views without
restriction, but remained influenced by economic or political interest groups
or individuals”. “The authorities continued to make unscheduled tax inspections
of independent and opposition media, which local observers viewed as attempts
to stifle the press”, the report notes. “Most stations were owned by progovernment
politicians or well-connected businessmen, factors that prompted journalists
working for these stations to practice self-censorship. Major broadcast media
outlets generally expressed progovernment views and avoided editorial comment
or reporting critical of the government. This was especially the case during
the presidential election campaign and the protests and state of emergency that
followed the election”, the report says. In particular, the US Department of
State noted that during the presidential election campaign “the broadcast media
displayed bias in favor of the official candidate, and eventual winner, then-prime
minister Serzh Sargsian”.

Neither the Central Election Commission (CEC) nor the National Commission on
Television and Radio (NCTR) “fulfilled their statutory obligations to ensure
equality and objectivity of media coverage towards candidates”, the report authors
stressed and reminded about the RA Constitutional Court ruling of March 8, 2008,
which states that “the CEC neglected to exert effective control over preelection
promotion” and that the NCTR “displayed a formalistic approach to complying
with the law. As a result, media coverage displayed not only partiality but
also, in some cases, violations of legal and ethical norms”. “Nevertheless,
the US State Department notes, the court found that no sanctions or remedies
were warranted because the candidates were able to present their platforms to
voters by other means of preelection promotion.”

By describing the situation during the state of emergency on March 1-21, the
report notes that censorship was imposed and freedom of speech and media were
severely restricted: “all opposition media, all Web sites critical of the government,
and several days of broadcasts of Radio Liberty “ were closed. However, the
decree on state of emergency did not “prevent other print and broadcast media
from airing strident criticism and unfounded charges against the political opposition
and its leaders”, the report stresses and cites the statement of RA Human Rights
Defender Armen Harutiunian which notes that “a most vivid example of such unacceptable
coverage was demonstrated by the First Channel of the Public Television of Armenia”.
“While the state of emergency decree applied only to Yerevan, there were numerous
reports of the severe media restrictions being imposed in many other parts of
the country”, the report says.

The US State Department also lists the incidents with the media representatives
that occurred in 2008: the arson attempt of Journalists Club of Gyumri on January
19 and the arson of “Asparez” president’s car on March 21; the detention of
“Asparez” Board Chairman Levon Barseghian at a rally on March 2 in
Gyumri; cases of impeding professional activities of journalists on the day
of presidential election, on February 19, at post electoral period and after
state of emergency. The report cites the assaults on journalists by persons
whose identity remains unknown: on August 11, on correspondent of “Haykakan
Zhamanak” daily, Lusine Barseghian; on August 18, on acting head of Yerevan
office of the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Hrach Melkumian;
on November 17, on Chairman of “Investigative Journalists” NGO Edik Baghdasarian.

The report reminds about the pressure exerted on “Gala” TV Company of Gyumri,
“simultaneously from tax auditors, broadcast regulators, and municipal authorities”.
In particular, the report cites the court ruling of March 19 on the suit of
Gyumri Tax Inspection versus the “Gala” founder on tax fines levy.

The report of the US State Department paid attention to the European Court
of Human Rights judgment of June 17, recognizing the refusals to grant a broadcast
license to “A1+” TV company founder as a violation of Article 10 of the European
Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, i.e., of the right of the
applicant to freely impart information and ideas. The report reminds that “A1+”
still remains without a broadcast license. The amendments to the RA Law “On
Television and Radio” adopted by the parliament on September 10 imposed a moratorium
until July 2010 on the broadcast licensing competitions. Independent media,
media analysts, and NGOs viewed the amendments as an effort to block issuance
of a license to “A1+”, the report notes. The report cites the letter of OSCE
Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti, urging the Armenian
authorities to revoke the broadcast licensing moratorium which means that Armenia
will not be able to comply with the decision of the European Court on the case
of “A1+”.

The report also emphasized the continuing detention of Arman Babajanian, the
Chief Editor of “Zhamanak-Yerevan” newspaper, convicted in September 2006 for
document fraud to evade military service. This report, like the one of 2007,
also refers to Arman Babajanian in the section on Political Prisoners and Detainees.