Armenia’s leading newspapers critical of the government were unable to resume publication on Friday despite a softening of the controversial government ban on independent news reporting announced by President Robert Kocharian.
The Armenian authorities also failed to unblock access to the websites of RFE/RL’s Armenian service and local online news services.
Under the 20-day state of emergency declared by Kocharian on March 1, the Armenian media could only cite the government and law-enforcement bodies when covering national politics. More than a dozen independent and opposition publications suspended or were forced to suspend their operations as a result. In a decree signed on Thursday, Kocharian said they can resume their work so long as they do not publish “obviously false or destabilizing information.”
The editors of seven newspapers affected by the severe restrictions said censors from the National Security Service (NSS), the Armenian successor to the Soviet KGB, ordered the printers not to publish their Friday editions after examining their content. Only one of the papers, “Aravot,” was said to have been given an explanation of the publication ban.
“There was a KGB censor at the Tigran Mets printing company who locked himself in a room and made phone calls to his superiors,” the “Aravot” editor, Aram Abrahamian, told RFE/RL. “He then told my deputy that [a newspaper article about opposition leader] Levon Ter-Petrosian’s news conference contains obviously false information and that the newspaper can therefore not be printed.”
“I suppose the authorities did not want to see balanced information containing their views along with those of the opposition,” said Abrahamian. “They want to make sure that only their opinion, their version of events is made public.”
“Nothing has changed. NSS employees continue to sit at printing shops and check the newspaper content,” agreed Hayk Gevorgian, acting editor of “Haykakan Zhamanak,” Armenia’s best-selling daily staunchly supportive of Ter-Petrosian.
Local online publications not controlled by the government are similarly unable to resume their work. Haykazn Ghahriyan, editor of Lragir.am, said Internet service providers told him that the NSS has not yet allowed them to revise the list of news websites blocked following the imposition of emergency rule.
The chief executive of Armenia’s largest Internet firm, Arminco, confirmed this. “I am looking for [NSS] officials with whom I can discuss the problem,” Andranik Aleksanian told RFE/RL. “Maybe they just forgot to drop the restrictions.”
An NSS spokesman refused to comment on the situation, referring all inquiries to Kocharian’s press service. Victor Soghomonian, the presidential press secretary, confirmed that the former KGB is tasked with enforcing the media restrictions. He suggested that the newspapers in questions were prevented from publishing because they violated conditions spelled out in the presidential decree. It was signed by Kocharian amid mounting international pressure on Armenian government to lift the state of emergency and the resulting restrictions.
In a joint statement, the seven newspapers and three online publications brushed aside Kocharian’s decree as a “wretched attempt to mislead the international community and the Armenian public.” “With such provincial tricks, it is impossible to create a semblance of democracy and thereby counter authoritative international structures’ legitimate demands to ensure freedom of speech and end illegal restrictions and bans,” they said. “We regard the actions of the Armenian authorities, ostensibly aimed at restoring internal stability, as an attempt to maintain dictatorship.”
In a Thursday interview with RFE/RL, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian admitted that the notion of “obviously false information” can be open to “differing interpretations.” Still, he came up with his own explanation of the term not defined by Armenian law. “It is when you have clear-cut official information from several sources, know what a particular fact is, but then get different information which is not only unconfirmed but does not correspond to the existing facts in any way,” he said.