|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
Nevertheless, old habits died hard. Defense Minister Sarkissian -- widely
seen as the real power in Armeniaand 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
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
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.