Armenia's vibrant print media are struggling to remain afloat due to a serious shortage of newsprint which government officials and private publishers blame on external factors such as Russia's continuing transport blockade of Georgia. Some newspaper editors, however, wonder whether the shortage is, in fact, politically motivated.
The country's largest printing house, which publishes some 30 local periodicals, claims to have been unable to ship paper since the closure of the main Russian-Georgian border crossing last summer. The privately owned company, Tigran Mets, announced late last week that it has run out of stock and will not accept printing orders from clients until further notice.
Virtually none of the affected publications has suspended publication so far, however. Some have temporarily switched to other, smaller printing houses. Others continue to be produced by Tigran Mets on thicker and more expensive paper which is normally used for books. They have had to reduce their already small printing runs to offset the extra publishing costs involved.
Tigran Mets owner and Chief Executive Officer Vrezh Markosian told EurasiaNet on November 12 that the crisis will likely end by the December 16-17 weekend. "We expect to get a fresh batch of newsprint on Friday or Sunday at the latest," he said. "It is on its way to Armenia."
Tigran Mets has for years imported Russian-made newsprint to Armenia via neighboring Georgia, usually by trucks. The company says the Russian government's decision in June to "temporarily" shut down the sole functioning Russian-Georgian border crossing at Upper Lars left more than 200 tons of its newly purchased paper stranded in southern Russia. The all-out Russian transport blockade subsequently imposed on Georgia forced it to divert the cargo consignment to the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Ilyichevsk, which operates a regular rail ferry service with Poti, Georgia.
Markosian and government officials in Yerevan say the ferry link, heavily used by Armenia in its external trade, was not operational during most of November because of stormy weather. The explanation seems less than convincing to Armenian newspaper editors and leaders of media associations. In particular, they wonder why Markosian took six months to reroute the newsprint deliveries and why he warned customers of the problem at short notice.
"I can't say for certain that there is no politics involved here," said Aram Abrahamian, editor of the independent daily Aravot. "I can only hope that the reasons [for the shortage] are really economic."
Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, voiced similar suspicions, arguing that imports of other commodities have barely been affected by the Russian-Georgian confrontation and other problems complicating landlocked Armenia's transport communication with the outside world. "In countries like ours, the authorities can take any step to restrict freedom of speech and dissemination of information," he told a November 6 roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
The Armenian print media have not faced serious government restrictions until now, with many newspapers routinely making harsh attacks on President Robert Kocharian and other top officials. Most of the country's five national dailies and a dozen other major publications are highly critical of the authorities. They are tolerated by the latter not least because of their small circulation and the resulting limited impact on public opinion. The best-selling local daily, Haykakan Zhamanak, sells less than 6,000 copies a day and is only eight pages long.
Instead, Kocharian maintains a tight grip on the far more accessible electronic media. The presidential administration is believed to control the news coverage of dozens of big and small television stations operating in Yerevan and across the country. The only TV channel that regularly aired criticism of the Armenian president and his cabinet was controversially pulled off the air in April 2002. The de facto closure of the popular A1+ station was condemned by local and international media watchdogs. One of them, the Washington, DC-based Freedom House, has described the Armenian media as "not free" in its annual reports released since the closure.
Another watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), put Armenia in a lowly 101st place in its latest list of 168 nations ranked in terms of press freedom protection. The Paris-based group pointed not only to the de facto government control of Armenian broadcasters, but also to periodical physical attacks on local print journalists. In the most recent of such cases reported in September, unknown men ambushed and beat up Hovannes Galajian, editor of the opposition-linked Iravunk weekly. Also in September, another newspaper editor critical of the government, Arman Babajanian, was sentenced to four years in prison for dodging military service. While Babajanian pleaded guilty to the charge, the sentence was unusually harsh by Armenian standards.
The newsprint shortage, coupled with Babajanian's imprisonment and violence against other journalists, is raising fears among media professionals that the authorities have decided to get tougher on the defiant print press ahead of parliamentary elections next spring.
"We will somehow overcome this crisis, but what is going to happen next?" asked Hagop Avedikian, the veteran editor-in-chief of another daily, Azg. Avedikian is particularly worried about newspaper distribution in Armenia, which he believes could become an even more serious problem. Private distribution agencies that owe considerable sums to Azg and other papers, he explained, are increasingly facing bankruptcy.
"What is happening now is extremely dangerous," said Nune Sargsian, head of the Yerevan office of the US media support group Internews. "What will we do if the same situation arises during the election period? That may happen and we must be prepared for that."
Emil Danielyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst.