President Robert Kocharian said on Wednesday that he will partly lift the controversial ban on independent news reporting stemming from a state of emergency in Yerevan which he declared on March 1.
The state of emergency means the Armenian media can only cite the government and law-enforcement bodies when covering domestic political affairs. As a result, virtually all local media outlets not controlled by the government have suspended their operations or been effectively shut down by the National Security Service (NSS).
As part of the severe restrictions criticized by the international community, the authorities also halted the retransmission of RFE/RL’s daily Armenian-language news programs by local broadcasters. In addition, they blocked Armenian Internet users’ access to the news websites of RFE/RL and other foreign media that have extensively reported on the post-election unrest in the country. Armenians were thus left to rely only on information provided by the nearly two dozen Yerevan-based TV stations, all of them loyal to the government.
“I will sign this evening or tomorrow morning a decree that will change this approach,” Kocharian he said in televised comments made during a visit to a construction site in Yerevan. “Now, under the state of emergency, we are telling you what you can do regarding the internal political situation. After signing the decree we will tell you what you can not do.”
“Those restrictions will be very narrow,” he told journalists accompanying him. “They will relate to provocative actions, the spread of overtly false information. All of you will be much freer to express your views and approaches, to report analyses and information in general.”
It was not clear if the more than a dozen independent and pro-opposition newspapers and online news services affected by the ban will be able to resume their publication without facing government censorship. In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, they said the unprecedented media blackout is unconstitutional and has done nothing to defuse tensions in the aftermath of Armenia’s disputed presidential election.
“All this is not only failing to ease tensions in society but is deepening the atmosphere of hatred and animosity,” the statement said. It said the state-controlled media are “stoking unhealthy sentiment” in the country and strengthening public “distrust in the state” with their one-sided news reporting.
Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, also called for the complete abolition of the restrictions on press freedom. “I believe that pluralism is very important for democratic societies,” he told a news conference.
Kocharian acknowledged that the information blackout may have given rise to various politics “gossips” that have been circulating in Yerevan since his government quelled opposition demonstrations against the official results of the February 19 election. “Maybe there is a lack of information and maybe this decree will somehow help to address this problem,” he said.
Kocharian also said that contrary to speculation by opposition leaders, he has “no plans yet” to extend the state of emergency beyond March 20. He said no violations of emergency rule have been registered so far.