Political assassinations in Armenia have been prominent recently, notably the October 1999 massacre in parliament and the attempted murder of Arkadii Gikasyan, the president of the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" in late March. Less in the headlines are the attacks on the journalists who are working to keep these same politicians accountable. As the recent arrest and trial of one Karabakh Armenian journalist reveals, existing legal protections are failing to curb government harassment of journalists and undue restrictions on the media in Armenia.
Government restrictions on freedom of the press there are long-standing human rights concerns. Following a comprehensive investigation into press freedoms in Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1998, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that "Armenian officials use verbal and sometimes physical pressure to keep journalists in line" and described the media climate in the region as "ambiguous and sometimes surreal." In 1999, Freedom House labeled the media in Armenia "partially free" and rated "political pressures and controls on media content" and "economic influences over media content" in Armenia as some of the worst in the world.
The adoption of the new Civil Code in 1999 served a particularly harsh blow to press freedoms in Armenia. Superceding the Law on the Press and Other Media, the Civil Code replaced punishments for libel such as the publication of a retraction or compensation for damages with up to three years of imprisonment.
The government has actively enforced these new regulations. The Procurator of the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" (NKR) charged Vhram Aghajanyan, a Karabakh journalist for the newspaper Tasnerord Nakhang ("The Tenth State"), with slandering NKR authorities. The government went to dramatic lengths to portray Aghajanyan as a dangerous criminal, including bringing him to court in handcuffs. These intimidating and punitive tactics were clearly disproportionate to the alleged crime.
Armenian journalists began to see the charges against Aghajanyan as part of a pattern of attempted government intimidation of journalists. His arrest came on the heels of the libel trial of Nikol Pashinyan, editor of Haykakan Jamanak (Armenian Times), in the summer of 1999. It also followed threats emanating from parliament to dismiss the head of the State Television Company for having broadcast information that the defense lawyers of those charged with the bloody parliamentary attack were planning on holding a press conference. The charges against Aghajanyan, therefore, sent an unequivocally menacing message to other journalists.
The outcome of the trial and its appeal to a higher court reveal much about the state of protections. On April 12, Aghajanyan was sentenced to one year of imprisonment a sentence similar to the one handed down to Pashinyan the previous year. In both trials, a higher court suspended the sentences and released the men on their own recognizance. It is likely that the appeals courts were influenced by public protest over the original sentences.
Paradoxically, the outcome is not necessarily good news for Armenian journalists. The trials demonstrated ominously that the legal mechanisms for intimidating and punishing journalists are well in place regardless of the merits of the charges and remain a threat to future reporting.
Clearly, political pressure and judicial corruption are not solely to blame. The Armenian media are so impoverished, in line with the economic situation in the republic as a whole, that they can barely survive independently on the income from circulation and advertising alone. Many pay for their survival with their independence. It is natural that under such circumstances they become the mouthpieces of one or another political or business clan, those being analogous entities in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Such was the fate of Nicol Pashinyan and Vhram Aghajanyan.
Yet the Aghajanyan case generated broad solidarity among Armenian journalists. Five newspapers reprinted the very article that had triggered the arrest of Aghajanyan, making their position clear by running editorials in which they claimed full responsibility for their actions. Mher Davoyan, editor of one of those five newspapers, Noratert, where Vahram Aghajanyan worked as NKR correspondent, openly condemned the charges as fabricated and the court's actions as illegal. The Noratert editor pointed out that NKR Procurator did not criticize those Armenian media who published the article for which Vahran Aghajanyan received a suspended prison sentence.
Since 1996, the role of the media in forming public opinion has grown significantly in Armenia. Since then, there have been no more instances of government-sponsored beating of journalists, refusals to register information agencies, and closure of media outlets. Rather, pressure on the media is exerted through a semblance of law which, being less obvious, requires intensified monitoring.
Regulating the legal framework for the media must be a serious concern for journalists. Journalistic organizations, including the Yerevan Press Club, must take the lead in promoting the creation of regulations that protect the rights of the media. It is the most promising way out of the present legal impasse.
Mikhail Diloyan is a journalist based in Armenia. He is the executive director of the Yerevan Press Club.