President Robert Kocharian defended through a spokesman on Monday his administration’s continuing refusal to allow Armenia’s leading independent and pro-opposition newspapers and online publications to resume news reporting.
All of those media outlets suspended or were forced to suspend their work as a result of a 20-day state of emergency imposed by Kocharian during the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and thousands of opposition supporters. In a decree signed on Thursday, Kocharian said they can resume their work so long as they do not publish “obviously false or destabilizing information.”
Officers of the National Security Service (NSS) prevented the seven national newspapers critical of the government from publishing the next day after examining their content. The NSS also maintained the blockage of the websites of at least three Armenian online news services as well as RFE/RL’s Armenian service. Still, the authorities did allow local radio stations to resume the retransmission of RFE/RL’s Armenian-language news programs.
Victor Soghomonian, Kocharian’s press secretary, said all of the papers in question sought to report “obviously false information” in their Friday editions sent to the printers. Speaking at a news conference, Soghomonian cited specific newspaper reports that accused the Armenian authorities of underreporting the number of people killed on March 1, described the arrested opposition activists as political prisoners and said that many of them were mistreated in custody. He also faulted the opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” for trying to publish an interview with Nikol Pashinian, its fugitive editor who played a major part in the rallies organized by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Soghomonian further made clear that the authorities will continue to block Internet users’ access to local online publications for the duration of emergency rule. He argued that government monitoring and censorship of their reports is much more difficult than that of print media.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the publications affected by the severe restrictions brushed aside Kocharian’s Thursday decree as a “wretched attempt to mislead the international community and the Armenian public.” A separate statement by the Yerevan Press Club and seven other civic groups condemned the censorship as “illegal” and demanded its complete abolition.
Boris Navasardian, the YPC chairman, argued on Monday that the censorship was not formalized by any written presidential decree or government directive and that NSS officers are enforcing it solely on the basis of verbal orders from their superiors. He said that runs counter to an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that makes it a crime to obstruct journalists’ work.. “If the prosecutor’s office considers itself a guardian of law, it must open a criminal case in connection with that,” he told RFE/RL.
Navasardian also said Armenia’s leading TV stations and other pro-government media are only fanning post-election tensions in the country with their "one-sided" coverage of the March 1 clashes and the ensued developments. “Everyone must realize that the society is not unanimous today,” he said. “If there is no open debate, no open exchange of information, those differing interpretations of the situation will deepen. And that means political polarization will deepen too.”
(Photolur photo: Victor Soghomonian.)