by Leah Kohlenberg
Early on Saturday morning, March 1, as police prepared to storm sleeping protesters camped in front of Yerevan's opera house, 300 kilometers away near the Iranian border, Samvel Alexanian, editor of Kapan's local newspaper, noticed that his regular edition had not been delivered to kiosks as normal.
About 14 hours later, a state of emergency and press blackout was issued by outgoing President Robert Kocharian, mandating that media outlets only print information from "official" state sources for 20 days. Though the blackout was issued on March 1, though it applied only to Yerevan-based media, and though experts say the blackout itself was illegal, the Feb. 29 edition of Syunyats Yerkir wasn't delivered until March 21.
"I was told there might have been some problems with the content," Alexanian said, but added that it was never made clear who made those decisions or why they were made.
With a 10 p.m. presidential decree, the Armenian government successfully managed to shut down or at least severely limit media across the country for 20 days, using techniques reminiscent of the Soviet era—yanking frequencies and censoring print houses. But this was a 21st-century crackdown, so Internet server space was also subject to blackout. Editors were intimidated, journalists censored themselves, and even international broadcasts (CNN and EuroNews) were interrupted when mention of Armenia would lead a newscast.
Hailed in the past by US and Western leaders as being more lenient on journalists and tolerating more press freedom than its former Soviet neighbors, Armenia went through a time warp to the past for three weeks in which the Communist broadsheet Pravda would have seemed right in place.
The press blackout only highlights the continuing uphill battle independent media faces here. In fact, the blackout itself violated laws Armenia was required to adopt protecting freedom of speech and press when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001. Legal experts say Kocharian's declared press blackout—which did not refer to any written law, but was simply a verbal order of the president—expressly violated the freedom of expression laws guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
"Lawyers have three requirements to test the legitimacy of the freedom of expression amendment," explains Karen Andreasian, PhD, professor of media law at Yerevan State University and deputy director of the Armenian branch of the American Bar Association. "The test requires that any restriction of freedom of expression has a legitimate aim, is prescribed by law, and is necessary in a democratic society. The press blackout passed the first test, but failed the other two—there was no written law, and it was not necessary to silence the press in a democracy."
Yet legal challenges are virtually guaranteed to be denied by Armenian courts, still widely known to be controlled by the government. A media outlet's only recourse is to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, and that's an admittedly long wait. That's what A1-Plus, the controversial pro-opposition TV channel, did when the government denied its frequency six years ago in a questionable bidding war (and 12 times since). Though the channel's complaint ran through the Armenian court process in four months, years later it is still waiting for the Strasbourg-based court to hear the case, says Andreasian, who has represented the media outlet.
"There is a huge backlog of cases, so who knows how long it will take," says Andreasian. "It's ironic that the year after Armenia joined the Council of Europe, they immediately found a way to take away the frequency of the only opposition news channel."
Most of the time, Armenia's government doesn't have to worry about controlling media. The government exercises controls over all broadcast media, either via direct control, such as the state-owned Channel 1 (H1) or more indirectly, such as Channel 2, which is unofficially connected to Kocharian's wife. Print media has more opposition voices, but with the largest circulation papers distributing only 3,000-5,000 copies per issue (though the numbers grew around election time), it has limited influence. As well, the government has influence over the major print houses, and much of the countrywide newspaper distribution system.
The few media outlets that do challenge the status quo, from A1-Plus to Gala TV in Gyumri, are vulnerable to state investigation, and not just because they produce material that opposes the official state view. Most of the independent stations lack transparency in their business practices, as well as lacking balance in editorial content, says Robert Evans, director of the International Research and Exchanges Program (IREX) Core Media Support Program.
"Even the independent broadcasters operate on a system of cronyism and special favors," says Evans. "Gala TV, for example, had been provided the use of government facilities in Gyumri at no charge for four years, and was shocked to find that they would actually have to start paying rent for the use of facilities. Their inappropriate business tactics made them an easy target for the government."
Even in the days before the press blackout, major television stations were faithfully broadcasting images designed to make protesters of the Feb. 19 election results look bad. Piles of trash and used drug needles were pictured on the opera house grounds, while the sizeable, largely peaceful marches convening every day through Yerevan city streets were either ignored or downplayed. Later, on March 1, state television showed obviously staged footage of grenades and handguns, planted by police according to witnesses, using the weapons as an excuse to charge the group.
As the day moved into night, and throngs of protesters marched upon four city blocks in front of Yerevan's French embassy, while tracer bullets launched overhead and AK-47 rifle fire rattled down the city streets, not one television channel showed any images. Instead, they played old American movies and rehashed European programming of fluff programs like dog breeding shows and entertainment interviews, only occasionally flashing to an official government press conference or reading official government statements. The few images of the riots available were shown on the internet's YouTube.com, which the government shut down almost immediately.
After the Blackout
On his newspaper's first print schedule of the week, Aram Abrahamian, editor of the popular daily Yerevan newspaper, Aravot, announced plans to print several blank pages in his paper in lieu of "official" information. The print run was stopped by government censors at the Tigran Mets printing house for having "too strong a message." So, for the 20 days of the press blackout, Aravot didn't publish any newspaper at all.
"We preferred not to publish at all, rather than publish what we didn't believe was true," Abrahamian said.
Legal or not, as soon as the press blackout was declared, government censors stationed themselves at major print houses, where they reviewed all newspapers before allowing only those printing official information only. The local Internet agency, Arminco, was told to shut down the A1-Plus news website. The independent Radio Liberty's frequency was interrupted, forcing it to broadcast on limited shortwave frequencies.
In the regions, where press freedom was purportedly not to be curtailed, pressure was still exerted—either directly or indirectly. In Gyumri, for example, a major (by Armenian standards) media market with three weekly newspapers that compete heavily, government censors visited all three newspapers and told them it was illegal to print anything other than official government news, according to Yepraksia "Susie" Mekhakian, editor of Shrjapat, one of those weekly newspapers.
In other areas, the pressure was placed on independent businesses supporting the media. In Vanadzor, for example, editors of the small human rights newsletter, Civil Initiative, voluntarily elected not to publish during the blackout when the owner of the Vanadzor printing press, which printed the paper, begged them not to do it, said Naira Bulghadarian, the newsletter reporter.
The small newsletter would not have fallen in the press blackout because it was outside Yerevan, but the owner of the printing press, who also publishes Vanadzor's biggest weekly newspaper, was worried, Bulghadarian said.
"We can't blame the printing press operator," she said. "He was scared for his business."
Not all regional newspapers were censored. Sevan's weekly newspaper managed to print one edition on March 5, which included information about politics that was not officially government sanctioned, says Editor Pap Hayrapetian. But he thinks that has more to do with the fact that he used a smaller printer on the outskirts of Yerevan that the censors missed.
"They complained about it, but only afterwards, when it was too late," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I had already distributed it."
In the case of Kapan's Syunyats Yerkir, the intimidation didn't end at stopping the distribution of the newspaper. On March 16, Alexanian says he was detained by police for five hours, presumably for being involved in the March 1 protests in Yerevan (he contends he was in Goris in Syunik Marz, nowhere near the protests). During that time, the police questioned him about a number of matters, including his newspaper activities, and tried to force him to sign a confession that he resisted coming with them to the police station. They refused him a lawyer, he says, but ultimately released him with no charges.
Was it intimidation to keep him from printing?
"I'm not sure," Alexanian admits. "It's possible, as they asked me about my newspaper activities."
There wasn't complete silence during the press blackout, thanks to Internet technologies government officials hadn't learned to block yet, or else did not concern themselves with, considering the limited access in Armenia. Most prominent was a list of links to personal blogs, opened by a loosely organized group of reporters and NGO employees, where reporters could post anonymous reports. When one blog was shut down, another was opened and the web address was circulated via a group of e-mail lists.
"This happened very organically," said one reporter, who preferred to remain anonymous, and who posted to the blogs. "You never knew when one was going to open and another to close."
ArmeniaNow.com internet journal (supported by AGBU), which has a broad international readership, chose to abide by the blackout regulations, but advised its readers that the journal objected and that its reports contained only partial representation of the true situation in Armenia.
Like other online journals, ArmeniaNow saw its numbers grow significantly during the first days of the crisis—an indication that Armenian readers are catching up to the rest of the world in how they find their news.
"Many in Armenia still consider Internet news a 'foreign' phenomenon," says ArmeniaNow managing editor Julia Hakobian. "But one of the significant trends of March 1-2 is that 40 percent of our readership (from a total of about 11,500) is from within Armenia, even though Internet access here is so relatively limited."
The Internet was also a home for "citizen journalism" in Armenia during the blackout. On March 21, the day the state of emergency ended, a massive, silent vigil for the victims of the March 1 protests was organized via the online portal Facebook, attracting thousands of silent protesters who walked along the city's prestigious North Avenue and formed a human chain standing at least an arm's length away to avoid violating any "political gathering" laws.
In the aftermath of the vote, the violence and the media crackdown, do journalists have any right to sue the government?
If they are willing to wait out the long lines at the Strasbourg Court and can get a favorable judgment, says Andreasian, chances are good that the decision will be enforced. Member states have yet to defy the rulings of the international court, which include everything from monetary reparations and fines assessed to the government, to changes in law.
"It won't be easy, because it will take a while, but it's definitely worth it to take a case to court," says Andreasian, "for press freedom generally."
That's a big task for a media outlet to take on, but as one reporter put it recently:
"Sure it will be hell, but it's also hell not to be able to write anything. What more can they do that they haven't already done?"
Yerevan-based American journalist Leah Kohlenberg is a consultant for IREX and other international media support organizations. IREX staff member Tatevik Sargsyan contributed to this article.