We asked several leading journalists to offer their take on 2010 in terms of media freedom and the situation of the press in general in Armenia. Here’s what they had to say.
Mesrop Haroutyunyan (Specialist at the Freedom of Speech Defense Committee)
It was a bit complicated at the start of the year, the issue being the election at the Tenth Yerevan electoral district. The middle of the year proceeded normally, if we don’t take into account that the economic crisis negatively impacted certain media outlets. The end of the year stood out with the denial of a broadcast license to A1+ TV. This will not bode well for freedom of speech in Armenia. Summing up, the past year was like any other non pre-election year. In January, we will publish our yearly report that will analyze 2010 in detail. There’s a positive side to the decriminalization of slander and personal defamation, but the new legislation hasn’t really been enacted. As a legislative act it can be considered positive, but since we haven’t seen its application in the real world it’s difficult to say whether it will be used against the media, as so many other laws, or whether it will be applied normally.
Aram Abrahamyan (Chief Editor, Aravot Daily)
I consider 2010 to have been a negative year like all the rest. I saw no positive change, especially since Nikol Pashinyan remains behind bars. Second is the A1+ fiasco; it was again denied a broadcast license. I don’t believe the decriminalization of slander and defamation charges had any real effect. We’ll see what the future has in store. For the coming year, the biggest change would be the release of Pashinyan.
Abraham Gasparyan (Anchorman; Haylur Program)
Compared to preceding years, in 2010, the media had a measure more freedom to operate in. Evidence of this is the fact that various international organizations judged Armenia to be a “partly free” country. I believe that there are always pressures brought to bear. For as long as our media isn’t independent economically, it will always be vulnerable to pressures of various kinds. If we do not take into account that the National Commission of TV and Radio once again denied a broadcast license to A1+ TV, a station that has championed itself as an alternative voice, then, I would say that 2010 passed quite unremarkably. But many would have liked to have seen a real alternative TV station. This would not only justify the hopes of the opposition but would also serve as a prescription to many of the socio-economic, political and cultural issues faced by Armenia. If our alternative media outlets truly are intent to keep the government on its toes, then I fully support them. But if it’s just to stage a political show, with the opposition portraying itself as the victim, I’m against it.
Armineh Ohanyan (Chief Editor; Hraparak Daily)
Since nothing really changes in the Armenian media sector from year to year, I wouldn’t single out 2010 from the year preceding it or the one to come after. We witness the same pressures and defeats that have been a part of the media scene for the past twenty years. Some years see a rise in such incidents, while during others; they are below the surface, out of sight. In essence, nothing changes in our lives. We constantly face the same challenges when it comes to publishing and marketing. The authorities never let up on the pressures they exact on us. We have gotten so used to it all; we no longer pay any interest. We have grown immune in a way and are able to out maneuver these problems and satisfy our readers to the extent possible. Sure, the decriminalization of slander and defamation charges can be considered significant from one aspect, but let’s not forget that Criminal Code penalties and fees that were paid this year as well. Thus, I wouldn’t describe this as a positive change. We haven’t seen any class-action suits with the new law, but I believe they are holding it like a club over our heads to be used when the need arises. Given my prediction that the political lines will be more sharply drawn in 2011, I see the potential for such legal action against us. It would just take a one or two legal suits to shut down a struggling media outlet like ours. President Sargsyan, during his speech at the Republican Party’s 20th anniversary celebration, noted that he welcomed diversity of opinion. But just two days before, the so-called National Commission denied A1+ a license to broadcast. We can only infer that the authorities in Armenia pay nominal heed to the “demands” set by international organizations and that the claims made by the authorities that they support diversity of opinion are untrue. The regime cannot aide criticism and seeks to monopolize the media sector in such a way to effectively control it. All our actions must be aimed to reverse this dangerous process. It would be naive to believe that the government will adopt a more tolerant attitude towards criticism and alternative viewpoints.
P.S. We should point out that despite the decriminalization of slander and defamation, Article 344 remains in the RA Criminal Code. It deals with slander of “Judges, prosecutors, investigators, case examiners or bailiffs from the Compulsory Enforcement Service.” Given the particulars involved, one can be sentence to up to 4 years according to the Article. In effect, it remains a convenient weapon in the hands of the authorities; to be brandished whenever reporters and journalists start to critically cover the issues of the day.