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Armenia: Yerevan Journalists Receive Democracy Award

London, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Yerevan Press Club was set up in 1995 by Armenian journalists whose goal was to "further the development of a free democratic press, independent from the state, political parties and commercial interests."

One of its main achievements was to bring together journalists from Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan to discuss common problems.

In the early 1990s, the new political elite in Armenia was attempting to "manipulate public opinion by supporting pro-government newspapers and suppressing opposition media".

As official censorship no longer existed, the authorities used economic pressure and "persecution" of individual journalists to control the media's activities. Journalists saw there was a strong need for an association that would promote journalistic ethics, help to improve professional skills, and to protect freedom of speech.

The Press Club was founded by some 50 members representing the principal media outlets in Armenia. They included journalists from both pro-government and opposition newspapers.

The Press Club established close cooperation with the EU-sponsored project, Media in the CIS. It decided to address one of the weakest areas of Armenian journalism -- election coverage.

A project known as "Media and Democratic Elections" started work in July, 1996, just two months before presidential and municipal elections. It aimed to equip Armenian journalists with the basic knowledge and skills for effective election coverage.

An International Press Center was set up that provided journalists with basic computer and communications facilities and created an opportunity for Armenian journalists to work together with their foreign colleagues -- a good learning opportunity.

The Press Club successfully challenged a regulation issued by the Central Electoral Committee that decreed that only one reporter from each newspaper was allowed to be present at polling stations, and that the list of reporters had to be approved by the committee.

During the 1996 elections, the Yerevan Press Club worked actively with international organizations involved in election monitoring such as the Council of Europe and OSCE observers.

The Press Club has since expanded its activities by staging seminars about the problems of developing a free and responsible media in the rest of the Transcaucasus. A regional conference in Georgia became one of the most significant media events in the region. For the first time representatives of the Azerbaijani media took part in activities organized by an Armenian organization (Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh).

Delegates from the three Transcaucasus nations discussed regional collaboration aimed at the further development of a free and independent press. EU partner organizations stressed the need for links between Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani journalists.

The Yerevan Press Club is now involved in the development of a legal framework for the media. Its bulletin is an effective tool for discussing media problems, and informing Armenia's press.

Last year, when a free media was under threat in Belarus, the Press Club presented a protest note to the Belarus government.