By Hrach Melkumian
More than one hundred people, most of them journalists, demonstrated in Yerevan on Friday to warn of what they see as a growing threat to press freedom in Armenia following the closure of the independent A1+ television.
The protesters marched to the presidential palace in the capital after a local media association declared President Robert Kocharian the worst "enemy of the press." The National Press Club, which unites several dozen journalists working for independent media outlets, blamed Kocharian for A1+'s removal from the air and a controversial government bill on mass media criticized by the Council of Europe.
"He is the one who is primarily responsible for everything happening in this country," said Vartan Vartanian, an NPC member and A1+ commentator. But the head of another local watchdog who also took part in the rally disagreed with the accusation. Boris Navasardian of the Yerevan Press Club said he shares journalists' concerns but does not regard Kocharian as their enemy.
Vartanian said that among other candidates considered for the dubious prize by NPC were Justice Minister David Harutiunian and Grigor Amalian, the chairman of the National Commission on Television and Radio that withdrew the popular channel's broadcasting license last month.
The commission's decision has raised domestic and international concerns about freedom of speech in Armenia. The protesters claimed that it was engineered by Kocharian as part of his efforts to ward off any criticism that could thwart his efforts to win another term in office in 2003.
"Restrictions on press freedom are being imposed very aggressively in Armenia," said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee. "Those may take the form of a law or the closure of A1+."
"The closure of A1+ of has left press freedom in jeopardy," said Vartan Harutiunian, a Soviet-era dissident and former member of the presidential commission on human rights.
The demonstration was timed to coincide with World Press Freedom Day marked by the United Nations. Its participants mostly represented newspapers and TV stations that are often critical of Kocharian and his government. Also among them was Karine Khodikian, the only member of the broadcasting commission who voted against stripping A1+ of its frequency.
The protest was boycotted by reporters from other outlets that are either controlled by or sympathetic to Kocharian. They issued a joint statement last month saying that A1+'s loss of frequency was not politically motivated and did not jeopardize press freedom in Armenia.
The protesters also walked past the justice ministry to condemn its draft law on mass media which has been unanimously criticized by the local press, many politicians and experts from the Council of Europe. A ministry spokesman told them that the draft law "remains in circulation" and will be sent to the parliament later this month after undergoing substantial amendments.