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Armenia: Censors Block Printing Of Opposition Newspapers

The clampdown on the media followed protests against alleged election fraud (Photolur) Armenian journalists muzzled by President Robert Kocharian's March 1 state of emergency and the accompanying media blackout were hoping today would mark the return of many nonstate publications to the newsstands.

Instead, many say they are witnessing the return of Soviet-era censorship after a central publishing house in the capital, Yerevan, blocked the printing of any newspapers featuring content seen as critical of the government or favoring the opposition.

Aram Abramian, the editor in chief of the "Aravot" independent daily, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the Tigran Mets publishing house refused to print the March 14 edition of the newspaper after hastily commissioned censors objected to coverage of a press conference held by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian.

"A KGB censor was sitting in the room. They said they were from the National Security Service," said Abramian, referring to Armenia's KGB successor agency. "My deputy was there; I didn't go. They closed the door and started calling one of their higher-ups. Then the officer told my deputy that [the article on] Levon Ter-Petrossian's press conference contains obviously false news and that the paper couldn't be printed."

Free To Print, With Conditions

Under the 20-day state of emergency imposed on March 1, Armenian media could only cite the government and law-enforcement bodies when covering national politics.

More than a dozen independent and opposition newspapers and online news services were forced to suspend their operations as a result.

Kocharian appeared to reverse course on March 13, saying journalists could resume their work. But he added a caveat: "obviously false or destabilizing information" about domestic political affairs was forbidden, as were calls for Armenians to participate in unsanctioned demonstrations.

In so doing, the outgoing Armenian leader evidently hoped to prevent a continuation of the mass public protests that followed the controversial election, in which the president's ally, Serzh Sarkisian, won a contested victory over Ter-Petrossian.

The demonstrations ended in violence on March 1, when eight people were reported killed in clashes between protesters and police.

Journalists on March 13 were critical of Kocharian's new conditions, saying they may serve as a smokescreen for government censorship.

Mesrop Harutiunian of the Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog, said the terms could be used "for muzzling the independent and opposition press," and suggested that any report containing views differing from the official line could be construed by authorities as "obviously false."

'Dictatorship' Condemned

Haik Gevorgian, the deputy editor of the popular opposition newspaper "Haikakan Zhamanak," was among those to have his publication rejected by the Tigran Mets censors.

"The National Security Service officer was sitting there," Gevorgian told RFE/RL. "He was happy to see us. He smiled. We made some jokes. He looked at the paper and then he reported by phone to wherever it was necessary to report. And as a result, the paper wasn't published in the morning."

Employees from at least 13 leading independent and pro-opposition newspapers and Internet news sites today signed a petition condemning the new media restrictions. An accompanying statement accused the Armenian authorities of seeking to "prolong dictatorship."

Most Armenian Internet sites remain blocked despite Kocharian's new measures. Armenian Internet service providers said they are waiting for clearance from the National Security Service to allow the sites to go back online.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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