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By Nane Atshemian and Karine Kalantarian
Armenia’s leadership was on Tuesday collectively branded as “the enemy of the press” by a media association largely uniting journalists critical of its policies.

The National Press Club (NPC) accused the country’s entire “state system” of waging a “systematic struggle against freedom of expression” over the past year. “The 2005 Enemy of the Press is Armenia’s state system which assures the outside world of its commitment to democracy but in reality … hampers the development of independent media,” it said in a statement.

The NPC listed, among other things, last year’s unprecedented violence against Armenian journalists and the authorities’ continuing tight grip on electronic media. It also charged that they discourage business people from placing advertisements in pro-opposition publications.

It is the first time that group’s annual incriminating title is not given to a concrete individual. The three previous “awards” were given to President Robert Kocharian. The Armenian leader always ignored them.

The NPC said its members were again given a shortlist of media “enemies,” among them Kocharian’s top aide, Armen Gevorgian, and millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian who has close ties with the ruling regime. Tsarukian was allegedly behind a group of burly men that indiscriminately attacked journalists during an opposition rally in Yerevan in April 2004. Kocharian’s name was not on the list this time around.

“None of the above mentioned contenders garnered sufficient votes to win the title of the Enemy of the Press,” the NPC explained in a separate statement which was timed to coincide with World Press Freedom Day marked on Tuesday.

The NPC is the most radical of Armenian journalist associations. Some of them, notably the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), often do agree with its uncompromising stance against Kocharian’s administration. But they too regularly accuse the authorities of stifling press freedom and pluralism.

“Unless the situation changes significantly by the next presidential and parliamentary elections we can hardly expect them them to be free and fair,” the YPC chairman, Boris Navasardian, told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.

Meanwhile, the Armenian media has again been rated “not free” by Freedom House, an international human rights organization. “Although Armenia has a significant independent and opposition print media and the constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, the government continues to restrict full media freedom in the country,” the New York-based watchdog said in an annual report released last week.

Freedom House also singled out the 2004 attacks on journalists covering opposition rallies. “Although there was evidence of the attackers’ identity, the authorities charged only two men, who received a fine of lass than $200, in stark contrast to the custodial penalties imposed on opposition activists for lesser offences,” it said.

The virtual absence of independent broadcasters in Armenia also figured prominently in the report. “The private Armenian TV station Kentron started a news and analysis program produced by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but the show was cancelled only three days after it began broadcasts,” the report said.

Freedom House further pointed to the continuing ban on the A1+ independent television but cautiously welcomed the emergence late last year of another private TV station, Yerkir Media. “Despite its political orientation, Yerkir Media is a new and alternative source of information that often criticizes government policy in its news reporters,” it said.

Yerkir Media is believed to be controlled by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential party represented in Kocharian’s government.

The Freedom House report was cited on Tuesday by the head of the public affairs section of the U.S. embassy in Armenia, Kimberly Hargan. “I note that the Freedom House rating of Armenia’s press freedom has actually gone down from what it was last year,” Hargan told RFE/RL.

“There are forces that do not appreciate a free press in Armenia,” he added. “Whether it’s because they have something to hide or it’s because they have what we would call old think, Soviet think, I don’t know.”
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