By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading television stations have mysteriously stopped covering daily news conferences featuring politicians and other public figures, sparking suggestions that the authorities are keen to further restrict press freedom ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
Prominent individuals with a wide range of opinions and interests meet journalists and debate among each other at various Armenian press clubs on a daily basis. The local TV networks have until now readily covered such events, even when those featured opposition speakers.
“Our events haven’t been covered by any TV channel for the past five days,” said Tatul Hakobian of the Urbat Press Club. “Such a thing hasn’t happened before. Why have they covered each of our events for the past year or so only to stop doing that now?”
Several pro-opposition newspapers claimed on Thursday that the authorities have ordered the loyal broadcasters to halt the coverage as part of their efforts to close the proliferating press clubs and thereby restrict Armenians’ access to information in the run-up to the elections. Some of them said the order came from President Robert Kocharian’s office, while others pointed the finger at Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
Kocharian’s spokesman, Victor Soghomonian, dismissed the claims as “ridiculous.” Aides to Sarkisian, who is currently visiting the United States, could not be reached for comment.
The reports prompted serious concern from the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), a leading media association. “In the last few days, news conferences held by politicians and public figures have not been covered by any TV company,” a senior YPC member, Mesrop Harutiunian, told RFE/RL.
“The TV companies could not have simultaneously made the same decision on their own,” Harutiunian said, suggesting that they acted on government orders.
The broadcasters declined a comment when contacted by RFE/RL. A top executive of Armenia TV, Gagik Mkrtchian, was quoted by a newspaper as saying that the private network has decided to stop covering press club events because speakers there sit against the backdrop of advertisements.
Urbat’s Hakobian countered that the adverts are the only source of revenues of his and other clubs. “We can not remove banners because we for us that would mean closure,” he said. “Why haven’t they brought up the matter for the past year?”
“I can only say that I am surprised by the simultaneous refusal by a dozen TV companies to cover our events,” he added.
All major Armenian broadcasters are loyal to Kocharian and his administration. Their coverage of previous Armenian elections was criticized as heavily biased by international monitors.