By Hovannes Shoghikian
Press freedom in Armenia has decreased markedly over the past year, an international media rights group said on Wednesday, pointing to a temporary ban on independent news reporting imposed by the Armenian government in March.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put Armenia in 102nd place in its latest World Press Freedom Index covering 173 nations. Armenia ranked 77th in the previous RSF survey released a year ago.
RSF attributed the drop to a three-week state of emergency which was introduced in Yerevan following the March 1 deadly clashes between security forces and opposition supporters demanding a re-run of the February 19 presidential election. As part of that measure, all media outlets were ordered to cite only government sources in their news reporting.
The draconian restriction was enforced by government censors. As a result, most of the local independent and pro-opposition newspapers suspended their publication during the emergency rule.
Most of the Armenian media experts interviewed by RFE/RL agreed with RSF’s conclusions. “Regress [in media freedom] in Armenia in 2008 is obvious, and that is mainly the result of the unprecedented March censorship,” said Mesrop Harutiunian of the Yerevan Press Club. “We still feel consequences of that censorship.”
Harutiunian also pointed to a government crackdown on an independent TV station in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri and the recent passage of legal amendments that prolonged an effective government ban on another, more famous broadcaster that was pulled off the air in 2002.
“That the situation in Armenia has deteriorated this year is a fact,” said Aleksandr Iskandarian, director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute. “I would just note that there has been some positive change in the second half of the year.”
RSF’s findings were also endorsed by Aram Abrahamian, editor-in-chief of the independent daily “Aravot.” “That is an absolutely realistic and objective evaluation,” he said.
But Gagik Mkrtchian, editor of the pro-government daily “Hayots Ashkhar,” disagreed, saying that the survey is politically motivated and “not objective.” He argued that all over the world press freedom can be limited during a state of emergency. “In any county, restrictions are placed in such cases,” Mkrtchian told RFE/RL.
RSF found an even shaper deterioration of the situation with media freedom in neighboring Georgia which the United States and the European Union regard as the most democratic and liberal of the three South Caucasus states. Georgia, which went through a state of emergency in November 2007 and a brief war with Russia last August, slipped 54 places to 120th in the survey.
Azerbaijan fared even worse, falling from 139th to 150th spot in the rankings.