By Emil Danielyan
Citing intensifying government efforts to stifle dissent, a major U.S. human rights organization has downgraded Armenia to the ranks of 68 mainly Asian and African nations where it believes mass media are “not free.”
“Armenia’s rating declined from Partly Free to Not Free as a result of the government’s repeated use of security or criminal libel laws to stifle criticism, as well as the forced closing of the country’s leading independent television station,” Freedom House concluded in an annual report released on Wednesday. The report scrutinizes the state of press freedoms around the world.
The New York-based group rated 193 countries of the world on a 100-point negative scale gauging economic and political pressures on the media as well as the legal environment in which they operate. Armenia, which was previously judged to have “partly free” media, slumped to 65 points this year, entering Freedom House’s “not free” category of nations.
The rankings put Armenia on a par with Jordan, Djibouti and the Gambia. According to Freedom House, it is now lagging behind countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau and Lesotho in terms of press freedom. Neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia scored 73 and 54 points respectively. Georgia is thus the only South Caucasus state with a “partly free” rating.
The Armenian authorities’ decision in April 2002 to pull the plug on the A1+ television station, the only major network often critical of President Robert Kocharian, seems to have been instrumental in Freedom House’s decision to lower Armenia’s rating. Kocharian and the Armenian broadcasting authority have repeatedly denied any political motives for the closure of A1+ in the face of strong domestic and international criticism.
“National security legislation and criminal libel laws allow the state to prosecute journalists for any perceived infraction. Journalists frequently experience physical assaults and other forms of intimidation in relation to their work,” the Freedom House report says, pointing to last year’s grenade attack on an independent Armenian journalist.
The report’s conclusions reflect growing Western criticism of the Armenian government’s policies toward the media. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, accused President Robert Kocharian last month of “muzzling dissenting voices in the press” in the run-up to the 2003 presidential election.
The Armenian media’s coverage of the vote was strongly criticized by election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They were particularly concerned about the fact that the opposition presidential candidates had little access to the TV air.
“Virtually all public TV coverage of the incumbent was positive or neutral, while opposition candidates received approximately equal proportions of negative and positive primetime news and analytical coverage,” the OSCE said in its final election report made public on Wednesday. “Private broadcasters were even more biased in favor of the incumbent, largely ignoring opposition candidates.”
“In general, the media’s coverage of the election demonstrated that Armenia still lacks a strong and independent media able to provide balanced information to enable the electorate to make a well-informed decision,” the OSCE concluded.