A 20-day state of emergency which President Robert Kocharyan proclaimed in the capital Yerevan on 1 March is having a serious impact on the activity of the news media, Reporters Without Borders said today. The emergency was declared after clashes between security forces and opposition protesters who say last month's presidential election was rigged.
“This authoritarian decision to liable to reinforce part of the population's resentment of the lack of real free expression in Armenia,” the press freedom organisation said. “We urge the authorities to lift the state of emergency so that the media can resume working normally and report on the circumstances in which force was used in clashes leaving a toll of eight dead and more than 130 wounded.”
Under the state of emergency, all news media are required to use only official information in their domestic coverage. Reporters Without Borders has learned that access to several online news publications - including the news agency A1+ (www.a1plus.am), the opposition newspaper Haykakan Jamanak (www.azatutyun.am) and website of the daily Aravot (www.aravot.am) - has been blocked by their hosting service provider, Arminco Ltd, on the orders of the security services.
The programmes of Radio Free Europe, the only foreign radio station to broadcast in Armenian, have been replaced by music, and the station's website is also inaccessible.
Three pro-government dailies - Azg, Hayastani Hanrapetutyun and Hayots Ashxar - continue to be published but one of the most popular newspapers, Aravot, did not appear yesterday. The issue was banned by the security services after it was sent to the printer's. The newspaper's staff then decided to publish blank pages in protest but they were prevented from doing this as well. Other newspapers such as Haykakan Jamanak and 168 Zham were not published either.
A complaint has been brought against Levon Barseghyan, the president of the “Asparez” journalists club in Gyumri, the second largest city (125 km north of Yerevan), accusing him of organising illegal gatherings. He has denied this, and his denial has been supported by several witnesses, but his trial is due to start within a few days.
At least three journalists have had run-ins with the police in Gyumri. Radio Free Europe correspondent Satenik Vantsyan was hit by police officers. Nune Arevshatyan of Aravot was manhandled by policemen who took her camera. And Armine Vardanyan of local television station Gala TV was arrested while doing her a report and her equipment was confiscated, including the video she had filmed just before her arrest.
Many journalists have criticised the vagueness of the directive banning the use of unofficial information as it complicates their work. When they interview members of the government, for example, they often do not know whether they can publish the information.
The TV stations are under especially close surveillance. The national news reports and information they are providing are in fact being broadcast by police press officers. Not only is the video footage the same but also the analyses and comments.