By Ruben Meloyan
Tax authorities have launched a rare financial inspection of Armenia’s leading newspapers critical of the government, sparking fears of renewed government restrictions on the local press.
The inspections began early last week just days after the lifting of a state of emergency in Yerevan that had forced the temporary closure of virtually all independent and pro-opposition publications. The opposition newspapers “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” and “Zhamanak Yerevan” were the first to be visited by officials from the State Tax Service (STS) on March 24.
“I had not yet finished drawing up the latest balance sheet,” said Anahit Karapetian, the chief “Zhamanak Yerevan” accountant. “They told me to hurry up so that they can start the inspection.”
“I submitted the financial report today. So they will start the inspection tomorrow,” she added.
Shogher Matevosian, editor of “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun”, said she heard similar demands from tax officials and promptly hired a lawyer to guard against possible harassment by the STS. Both Matevosian and her “Zhamanak Yerevan” counterpart, Aydin Morikian, alleged political motives behind the STS’s actions, saying that they are part of the government’s ongoing crackdown on the opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The government and the STS in particular are certain to brush aside such allegations.
Both “Zhamanak Yerevan” and “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” are known for their hard-hitting coverage of the government and strong support for Ter-Petrosian. The same is true for “Haykakan Zhamanak,” Armenia’s best-selling daily edited by Nikol Pashinian. He is among several dozen Ter-Petrosian loyalists who went into hiding following the March 1 clashes between opposition protesters and riot police in Yerevan. Despite being on the run and wanted by the police, Pashinian continues to write anti-government columns in his paper on a daily basis.
The STS formally notified “Haykakan Zhamanak” of its decision to look into the paper’s financial operations on March 25. However, the newspaper management refuses to allow STS officials to inspect its books, citing a clause in Armenia’s law on financial inspections that allows business entities to demand additional explanations from them. It sent a relevant letter to the STS director, Vahram Barseghian, and is still awaiting a reply.
“They want to start the inspection right now but because such a problem arose we are making use of our right to refuse it,” the “Haykakan Zhamanak” director, Anna Hakobian, told RFE/RL while she was again visited by taxmen on Monday.
STS officials also raided on Monday the offices of “Aravot,” another major Armenian daily. Newspaper sources said they asked for documents detailing the paper’s financial operations ever since its establishment in 1996.
It was not clear if the STS also plans to inspect pro-government publications and the far more profitable electronic media as well. None of those outlets suspended their work during the 20-day state of emergency.
“They haven’t told us anything yet,” Tigran Farmanian, editor of the government-funded daily “Hayastani Hanrapetutyun” told RFE/RL. “We were already inspected last year.”
The STS already sparked controversy when it inspected the books of the Gyumri-based TV station GALA last October shortly after the latter broke ranks to provide airtime to Ter-Petrosian. GALA was subsequently fined almost 27 million drams ($87,000) for alleged tax evasion and other violations. A Gyumri court endorsed the fraud accusations on March 19. The cash-strapped broadcaster paid the hefty penalty only after a week-long fund-raising campaign.