The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press. In practice the government did not always uphold these rights. Instances of violence against journalists decreased, but free speech was limited by a surge of libel and defamation lawsuits in which members of the politically connected business elite were awarded large monetary damages against opposition newspapers and journalists. News outlets engaged in self-censorship from fear of punitive monetary judgments against them if they published information about the politically connected elite. The media, especially television broadcasters, continued to lack diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. The switchover process from analog to digital television broadcasts further restricted the number and diversity of channels on the air. The government did not release the audit of the country’s television and radio frequencies that provided the technical basis for limiting the number of digital broadcasting licenses.
Freedom of Press: Most newspapers, with the exception of government-sponsored Hayastani Hanrapetutyun and its Russian-language version, Respublika Armenii, were privately owned. The print media published a wide range of viewpoints, although most publications tended to reflect the political leanings of their proprietors and financial backers. The political factions and business interests that sponsored these publications showed little interest in developing fair and balanced nationwide coverage. Only a handful of newspapers operated as efficient and self-sustaining enterprises.
Online Web sites were the country’s most independent information sources. Social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, exerted a small but growing influence on social discourse.
Newspaper circulation remained limited, as did the audience for the country’s 21 radio stations, three of which were public and two broadcast from abroad. All but three of the 82 television stations in operation during the year were privately owned; most were small broadcasters based in outlying regions. Four stations broadcast from abroad. Most stations were owned by politicians in the ruling party or politically connected businessmen and presented one-sided views of events. Regional television channels provided some alternative viewpoints, often via externally produced content.
Violence and Harassment: Media outlets, particularly broadcasters, feared reprisals for reporting that was critical of the government. These reprisals could include lawsuits, the threat of losing a broadcast license, a selective tax investigation, or loss of revenue when advertisers learned an outlet was in disfavor with the government. This fear of retribution led to a high degree of media self-censorship.
Censorship and Content Restrictions: Gyumri-based GALA TV continued its legal disputes over broadcast rights. The station’s initial difficulties began in late 2007 when GALA refused to restrict its content and continued to provide air to the opposition in advance of the 2008 presidential elections. On February 17, in response to a suit filed by the city of Gyumri against GALA over the station’s use of a disputed television tower that the city hall claimed to be its property, the trial court ordered GALA to remove its transmitter-antenna and cable from the tower. Both the court of appeals and the Cassation Court upheld the decision. Following the ruling, GALA asked the Ministry of Transport and Communication to permit the transfer of its antenna and equipment to the central television tower in Gyumri. In contrast with similar requests in the past, the ministry offered to do so under acceptable terms, and on October 25, GALA moved its equipment and started transmission from the central tower with minimal disruptions to its programming. Gala continued to experience problems securing advertisers, who GALA alleged were under government pressure not to patronize the station.
On October 3, the Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the independent A1Plus television news outlet of the denial by the National Commission on Television and Radio of its application for a broadcast license. This was the 13th unsuccessful bid for a frequency by A1Plus since it was forced off the air in 2002. According to A1Plus, it appealed after it reviewed the successful application of its competitor for the license and found a number of inconsistencies and falsifications. It claimed that the commission committed procedural violations in rejecting its application. A1Plus continued to maintain an active Internet presence.
A September 9 resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe addressed the A1Plus case, among other issues. It noted that “the outcome of the December 2010 licensing tender has not resulted in a more pluralist media environment,” and that the “the authorities--in this case, the National Commission on TV and Radio--rejected the bid from A1Plus, while being fully aware about its significance, on what would seem to be purely technical/administrative arguments.”
Libel Laws/National Security: The repeal of criminal penalties for libel in 2010 was initially welcomed by many media and human rights observers. However, since the same law set a relatively high ceiling for monetary damages that could be awarded by courts in civil libel cases, it contributed to a chilled media environment in which outlets had to weigh the candor of their reporting against the prospect that they could become targets for retaliatory lawsuits that would force them out of business. Following several court decisions ordering newspapers to pay high fines, authorities complied with the ombudsman’s call for a Council on Information Disputes. The council, with the participation of lawyers and journalists, examined libel cases that had been tried during the year and produced expert opinions on individual cases, which were published in the media as well as sent to courts and related organizations. In one case a court took into consideration a report published by the council during a hearing.
On November 15, the Constitutional Court, responding to an appeal by the ombudsman, confirmed the constitutionality of the 2010 law. At the same time, the court recommended that lower courts not hold media outlets liable for their critical assessment of facts or, when they were convicted, order them to pay disproportionately heavy fines.
In April former president Robert Kocharian sued the Hraparak newspaper for six million drams ($15,584) following its publication in February of an article that referred to him as “bloodthirsty.” The court agreed to a temporary freeze of the newspaper’s assets. The case remained pending at the end of the year.