On April 29 “Freedom House” international organization published its annual global survey on freedom of press in 2007. [] Out of 195 countries and territories 72 (37%) were rated free, while 59 (30%) were rated partly free and 64 (33%) were rated not free. 18% of the world’s inhabitants live in countries that enjoy free press, 40% have a partly free press and 42% have a not free press. “Freedom House” notes the overall negative shift in media freedom worldwide. The list is headed by Finland and Iceland – 9 points each, followed by Denmark and Norway – 10 points each, Belgium and Sweden – 11 points each.

Of the post-Soviet countries only the press of the three Baltic states is recognized by “Freedom House” to be free, and only Ukraine (53 points) and Georgia (60 points) are classed as partly free since 2004. At the same time, the survey notes that the situation of free expression in Georgia has somewhat deteriorated (57 points in 2006) due to “increased polarization of the media environment”, “the forced closure of pro-opposition ‘Imedi’ TV station” and “the suspension of all broadcast media during a temporary state of emergency”. Other countries of the former USSR remain unfree. As compared to 2006, the situation in Turkmenistan remains unchanged – 96 points, the third rank from the end, getting ahead of only Burma (97) and North Korea (98). The rankings of others have moved a little down: Moldova – 66 points (versus 65 in 2006), Kyrgyzstan – 70 (versus 67), Azerbaijan – 77 (versus 75), Tajikistan – 77 (versus 76), Kazakhstan – 78 (versus 76), Russia – 78 (versus 75), Belarus – 91 (versus 89), Uzbekistan – 92 (versus 91).

The ranking of Armenia shows a backslide in 2007, too – 66 points versus 64 in 2006. In other words, the Armenian media have been classed as not free for six years already, since 2002. The two-point slippage of freedom level in 2007 is due, primarily, to “increased government pressure on the media ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections”, “legal harassment of journalists” and “severe financial pressures on the independent ‘GALA’ TV station”.

In the report section on Armenia “Freedom House” also notes: “Despite the constitutional and legal protection for freedom of the press, in practice these rights were threatened. Incident of violence, legal intimidation and financial pressure all damaged media freedom and led to self-censorship. Libel remains a criminal offense. Despite legislation that provides access to public information, in practice journalists were frequently denied access.”

Recalling the deprivation of Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty of a possibility to broadcast on the frequencies of the Public Radio and the failure to provide a license to “A1+” TV company, the authors of the report stressed: “Broadcasting is by far the most important source of information in Armenia. As a result, most government efforts to control the flow of information are aimed at the broadcast media.”

In the opinion of “Freedom House”, the environment was highly politicized and the government pressure was at a high ahead of the May parliamentary election and again, at the end of the year, ahead of the February 2008 presidential election. During the RA presidential election campaign, the broadcast media were generally more pro-government inclined in their coverage, although more attention was given to opposition politicians than during previous election cycles: “Monitoring reports of broadcast media indicate that there was a strong bias in coverage for the two top presidential candidates, Prime Minister Serge Sargsian and the former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Sargsian, backed by President Robert Kocharian, received mostly positive coverage, while coverage of Ter-Petrosian was highly critical.”

Among the examples of pressure on media and journalists “Freedom House”quotes: the situation of “GALA” TV company of Gyumri; the explosion by the entrance to “Chorrord Ishkhanutiun” newspaper office in December 2007; the institution of criminal proceedings versus two Chief Editors, of “Haikakan Zhamanak” daily Nikol Pashinian and of “Chorrord Ishkhanutiun” newspaper Shogher Matevosian, taking part in the march of October 2007; the sentence of free-lance photo journalist Gagik Shamshian in June 2007; the attack on the Chief Editor of “Iskakan Iravunk” newspaper Hovhannes Galajian in September 2007; the continuing imprisonment of the Chief Editor of “Zhamanak-Yerevan” daily Arman Babajanian.

Few of the private newspapers are self-sustainable, the repot says, most are dependent on business groups with government ties. The distribution networks are private-owned, but not effective in distributing newspapers across the country. Ahead of elections the opposition newspapers were frequently confiscated. Most TV companies are owned either by pro-government politicians or businessmen with ties to the ruling party. The report also notes that there are no formal restrictions for Internet access in Armenia, through regular usage is limited to an estimated 6% of the population.

Source: Yerevan Press Club

Artur Papyan

Journalist, blogger, digital security and media consultant


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