Press freedom eroded along with democracy in Armenia, as President Levon Ter-Petrossian reasserted autocratic rule and heavy media control despite a highly contested Sept. 22 national election that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international monitors declared fraudulent.
During violent protests over election results, the presidents office and other government agencies censored and threatened foreign and local journalists, and riot police destroyed the cameras of several news organizations. Authorities shut down two independent radio stations and a television channel for several days, forcing editors from their offices. But in the case of HAI-FM, the director herself sought police protection, fearing opposition reprisal for the stations favorable coverage of the president. Armenian media and administration officials censored Russian and Armenian television election footage. Police detained, interrogated, and beat Gagik Mrktchyan, political commentator for the Russian-language newspaper Golos Armenii, charging him with organizing mass unrest. Mrktchyan, who said he was punished for his journalistic rather than political activity, was released on his own recognizance after 10 days and his case was dropped.
Since the presidents banning of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), known as the Dashnak Party, in 1994, authorities have closed a dozen newspapers associated with ARF, including Yerkir, formerly the largest circulation daily. Other opposition and independent publications exist alongside the official press, but have little impact. The combined circulation of Armenias seven daily newspapers totals 25,000-30,000 in a country of about 3.5 million people. In a climate plagued with libel lawsuits and official intimidation, there are very few Don Quixotes; somebody must be behind every newspaper, as an editor of a newspaper with Western investors explained to Russias Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Prior to the election, state security agents warned leading newspapers not to criticize the president. Ter-Petrossian monopolized the airways, and opposition candidates received tendentious coverage from predominantly state-run electronic broadcasting or suffered last-minute refusals of paid television access. On Sept. 2, government radio executives fired the director of the State Radio Co. after an aggrieved state bread plant manager filed a libel lawsuit against him. Mass resignations at the station to protest the firing followed. Ter-Petrossian faulted the two sides in the dispute and urged the court to punish both.
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