A number of Armenian media outlets and free speech activists are considering countermeasures against upcoming restrictions on the work of journalists in state-run institutions.
The need for discussing such steps arose after a number of recent legislative changes that, in particular, stipulate that sessions of the government be held behind closed doors.
The law that specifies the structure and powers of governments to be formed after Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic in April says the prime minister could only make “a part of a meeting” open to the press. It also bars government members from publicizing details of any issue discussed by the government without the premier’s permission.
“The president who has worked in a closed mode when it comes to relations with the media has decided to work the same way as the prime minister,” Ashot Melikian, chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, said on Monday, assuming that laws are being adjusted to the needs of outgoing President Serzh Sarkisian, who is widely expected to become Armenia’s next prime minister when his powers expire next month.
“A political decision has been adopted by the political elite that from now on the authorities will work in a closed mode when it comes to relations with the media and the public,” the expert added.
Armenian reporters have for years been able to watch weekly cabinet sessions through monitors placed in a press room of the prime minister’s office. Justice Minister David Harutiunian claimed last month that this has deterred ministers from voicing critical opinions about decisions or policies proposed by their colleagues. The minister insisted that the new rules are not undemocratic and that even in established Western democracies governments meet in closed session.
Armine Ohanian, the editor-in-chief of the Hraparak daily, complained that restrictions on the work of the media get stricter every year. Referring to the planned restrictions on media activities in Yerevan’s municipality she found it only “logical” that other institutions follow the example of the country’s number one official. “If Serzh Sarkisian, who aspires to become prime minister, has decided that his entry into the government should start with the introduction of closed sessions, it means that the mayor [of Yerevan] simply obeys that directive. This directive goes down to the lowest levels,” the editor commented.
According to Haykakan Zhamanak daily editor-in-chief Anna Hakobian, whereas the main obstacle to the activities of journalists so far has been the use of force against them or the pressure of lawsuits, now the government limits the freedom of speech in the form of laws and decisions.
“Now only the method has changed as brutal force is being replaced by a softer and civilized method, because when someone gets beaten it causes a great row, professional solidarity, it creates a rebellion, and this way many will even be grateful for the changes,” Hakobian said.