Radio Yerevan

Ștefan Cândea
Sona Avagyan and Grisha Balasanyan are journalists working for Hetq, a weekly journal of the Association of Investigative Journalists of Armenia. They accompany us to the border to show us the region and help with the interpreting. Sona showed up with a big plastic bag, several tens of copies of the paper he works at. While we talk and walk the streets, Sona gives out papers left and right. Grisha falls behind to discuss his articles with the peasants gathered in front of the dilapidated community centre.

This is the only way an independent journal critical of its government can make it outside Yerevan. Otherwise, Hetq is sold only in the capital – totalling 2.000 copies. It is a journal which was first published in print seven months ago. Other journals which have been on the market for some years now usually sell around 3.000-7.000 copies. They lack credibility and are much too politically biased. Advertisement and politics are strictly interconnected. Who pays for an ad that isn’t to the government’s liking can expect to receive sudden controls from fiscal inspectors. The total newspaper circulation in Armenia does not exceed 30.000 copies.

Obviously, press isn’t a business. That means it craves professionalism. Edik Bagdasarian is the editor-in-chief of Hetq and the head of the investigative association. Edik has written investigative and critical articles for several years and tells me he constantly receives threats because the government and parliament have strong connections with organized crime groups. About a year and a half ago, he was attacked on the street and beaten up until he lost consciousness. The police mimed the investigation in his case. Edik maintains that broadcast media is subject to government control, even if in some cases businessmen are pushed to the foreground. Firms in general and media companies in particular are very difficult to investigate – one cannot inquire or be provided with information regarding them.

Beatings, imprisonment and even crimes against Armenian journalists have quenched the thirst for investigative and critical materials. Mark Grigorian, an investigative journalist preparing a material on the 1999 commando assault on the Parliament, was badly injured when a grenade exploded right at his feet in an attempt to prevent the publication of the article. He chose to leave the country.

The governments which have alternately come to power don’t seem to hold human rights in high esteem. Two years ago, the news media became paralysed in the wake of the 20-day state of emergency proclaimed after violent clashes between security forces and opposition protesters. And right when we were on our way out of Armenia, U.N. official, a special rapporteur on the conditions of human rights defenders openly deplored the restrictions imposed by the government and the newly enacted legislation on television and radio.