A leading Armenian newspaper highly critical of the authorities was prevented from publishing on Thursday by a private printing company which cited a mounting backlog of debts for its services. However, staff of the "Haykakan Zhamanak" (Armenian Time) daily claimed that the decision was "imposed" by senior government officials unhappy with the paper's coverage of their activities.
Editor-in-chief Nikol Pashinian said the Gind publishing house refused to print the paper even after he offered to repay the entire debt worth 1.5 million drams ($2,700). Pashinian told RFE/RL that Gind's manager, Karen Avetian, informed him about the decision just hours after its Thursday edition was due to go to print.
He said: "Mr. Avetian said that even in that case, he won't publish us because of the lack of newsprint. We offered to supply it by ourselves, but he again refused, saying at the end of the conversation that we don't realize the seriousness of the situation." "This was an imposed decision," Pashinian charged. But Avetian denied any government pressure or other political considerations behind Gind's refusal to print "Haykakan Zhamanak." He insisted that the dispute is a purely financial one, accusing the paper of not respecting its contractual obligations.
Avetian, however, declined to comment on Pashinian's claim that the pro-opposition daily was ready to pay back the sum in question. He further refused to state if other publications using Gind's facilities have similar debts. Gind was awarded a $800,000 loan and grant package from the US Eurasia Foundation in 1998, which enabled it to install a modern printing facility last November.
The award was part of the foundation's "media strengthening program" for Armenia, which was supposed to break the government's virtual monopoly to publish newspapers and magazines. However, most Armenian periodicals are still printed by the state-run Tigran Mets publishing company. The dispute with "Haykakan Zhamanak" leaves only one national daily, "Azg," printed at Gind. "Azg" (Nation) has been generally supportive of President Robert Kocharian and his policies.
"Haykakan Zhamanak" (formerly called "Oragir"), which is close to political allies of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian and is known for its tough anti-Kocharian rhetoric, was forced to stop its publication after a similar conflict with the Tigran Mets management in June 1999. The company refused to print Pashinian's paper shortly after it lost two libel suits to then National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian and a company that had close ties with him. In January 2000, Pashinian was given a one-year suspended prison sentence after a Yerevan court found him guilty of insulting law-enforcement officials, declining to publish a retraction and slandering two persons.
The case, which marked the first-ever prosecution of an Armenian journalist on criminal charges, was widely condemned as infringing on press freedom in the country.