Sunday, 17 November

Experts Debate Freedom House Press Report and Implications for Armenia

The fact that Armenia rose two points in the latest Freedom House report on the freedom of the press globally is welcomed by Ashot Melikyan, President of the Freedom of Speech Committee, in the sense that things haven’t gotten worse. However, the news is troubling in the sense that Armenia remains in the category of nations classified as having a "non-free" press. "If the Armenian authorities real wished for the Armenian press to be free then what is needed is legislative change and most importantly, they allow for the free operation of the broadcast media, namely television. In our opinion this medium also falls under the supervision of the state authorities," Mr. Melikyan said. Edik Baghdasaryan, the Chief Editor of Hetq, believes that legislative changes are for the pre-election period, "to put the news outlets in their place". "I believe that prior to the elections there will be a few eye-catching court cases. I believe these legislative proposals will become law," he said. He said it’s not hard to concoct a few attention grabbing trials since there are several papers whose articles can serve as the basis for such cases. These cases will serve as a warning to the news outlets, now unmonitored, to be more circumspect in what they say and print. As to the question of whether there is there tolerance in the press and is it being maintained, the two commentators expressed differing opinions. Ashot Melikyan said that he believed such tolerance is gradually getting weaker. "The print media is being split into camps and is serving the interest of those political forces that sponsor the papers. "I would state the opposite. In reality, there is a non-displayed tolerance that is stronger than before. Before the tolerance was more for show than anything else," stated Edik Baghdasaryan. "I see what the relations are between the representatives of the press that supports the opposition and those backing the government. If a reporter from the opposition press is physically beaten, the news outlets on the other side almost always show no reaction," noted Mr. Melikyan. While commenting on the assaults against reporters and figures showing that five reporters have been physically assaulted so far this year as opposed to three during the same period last year, a result of the parliamentary election in District Ten, Ashot Melikyan noted that the figures could get worse during the next election cycle. Mr. Baghdasaryan argued that in any event, members of the press in Armenia are better protected than average citizens and cited the recent death of Vahan Khalafyan in the Charentsavan Police Station. "We do not know what is happening in the regions outside Yerevan. This was not a singular occurrence. It’s just one incident that ended up in a death. That’s why the news spread throughout the public. But when you go asking around about the Chief of the Charentsavan Crime Department, people say that he conducts such violence on a daily basis against people being investigated." The press ably assisted Mariam Sukhudyan, a member of the Teghut Defense Group, in exposing the criminal indictment brought against her. She was also present at today’s press conference. She noted that Armenia’s TV stations shied away from covering her case at first. "The papers really offered strong coverage. Then "Al-Jazeera" broadcast a program. Only later did the local Armenian TV pick up on the story," said Ms. Sukhudyan, adding that without the assistance of the press, her case could have wound up much differently fiven that she is an ordinary citizen. When asked about the future of the press in Armenia and what steps members of the "fourth estate" plan to take, Hetq’s Baghdasaryan said that what’s needed is system-wide changes. "If there is no economy in the country, nothing will happen in the other sectors. If we do not have normal elections, nothing will change for the better." He concluded by stating that nothing will change since the political will does not exist to make the tough decisions needed.

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