Armenia: Backdoor Censorship Fears

By Arpi Harutunian in Yerevan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), UK
March 16, 2006

Newspaper distribution law could severely restrict circulation of
opposition titles.

Armenian journalists are sounding the alarm over legislation that
requires newspaper delivery companies for the first time to apply
for licenses.

Local activists say that the legislation, introduced by Armenia’s
parliament last year in the form of an amendment to existing laws
on mail service and tax regulations, is in fact a hidden form of
state censorship.

“The journalistic community and public organisations of Armenia are
trying to stop this law,” Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan
Press Club, told IWPR. “Otherwise, we will have to admit that it is
one more mechanism for secret censorship.”

The legislation stipulates that firms pay 11,000 US dollars per year
in order to receive licenses for the right to deliver newspapers.

This requirement will bankrupt many small independent delivery
companies, say observers, and place the country’s newspaper
distribution service firmly in the hands of two state-connected
enterprises, Haipost, Armenia’s postal service, and Haimamul, the
main kiosk vendor.

Haipost, as a self-financing closed joint-stock company, is nominally
independent. However, since all of its shares belong to the state,
it is considered to be closely linked to the government.

Haimamul for its part is fully independent, though its origins indicate
close state ties. The firm was established in 1939 as Soviet Armenia’s
sole concern handling newspaper subscriptions and delivery.

Today it is the largest single distributor, and with about 400 kiosks
and 7,223 subscribers, one of the few that reaches all the country’s

Rather than censoring the newspapers outright, say media professionals,
government officials can instead pressure these two companies to
prevent publications with offending content from reaching the public,
especially in rural areas.

“I have the impression that the Armenian government is doing
all it can, and even what it cannot, in order to reduce newspaper
dissemination as much as possible,” said Hakob Avetikian, editor in
chief of the daily Azg. “They want to reduce the amount of undesirable
information to the public.”

The critics point to a number of incidents where Haimaimul failed
to distribute certain publications. In October, 2002, for example,
4,600 copies of the Aravot opposition newspapers disappeared from
Haimamul’s kiosks.

Aravot editors’ say that the incident was tied to an article which
was critical of Hrach Abgarian, former adviser to Armenian prime
minister Andranik Margarian.

Members of the Yerevan Press Club and other public organisations say
the new legislation violates human rights and have sent a letter
to parliament demanding the law be changed. IWPR has learned that
the opposition United Labour Party has thrown its weight behind
the initiative.

Press club officials say that the laws violate Article 10 of European
Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 19 of
Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as Article 24 of the
Armenian constitution, guaranteeing the right to free expression.

“If we are members of the Council of Europe and if we speak about
European integration, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press,
then we should reject licensing of the media,” said Armen Davtian,
director of the Blitz independent media distribution company, who
compared the situation with licensing of press distribution in Armenia
to that in authoritarian Belarus.

The new legislation comes into force just as a number of small,
independent companies have sprung up to challenge Haipost and
Haimamul’s near-monopoly over distribution.

Last year, for example, the US-funded Eurasia Foundation and George
Soros’ Open Society Institute awarded grants to five companies under
a programme to support alternative distribution channels and improve
delivery to rural areas.

Eurasia officials say that very few of Armenia’s daily newspapers
reach the country’s villages, where much of the population resides.

Some remote towns do not receive a single newspaper, they say.

“Our aim was to create stable companies that would lead to the
weakening of the monopoly of Haipost and Haimamul and become
alternative companies in the newspaper market,” Alisa Alaverdian,
Eurasia’s external relations coordinator, told IWPR.

Now, however, because of the new legislation, these enterprises are
under threat of closure.

Tax officials have paid several visits to the heads of the Blitz
Media Company, one of the new distributors, demanding that they either
suspend their activities or pay for a license.

“I pay annual 1,500 dollars in income tax, and according to what
I know, other small organisations that work in this sphere pay
approximately the same amount,” said Blitz director Davtian. “There
is no logic in this fixed sum of 11 thousand dollars for the license.”

Haikaz Simikian, head of the Simikian distribution company in
Vanadzor with 700 subscribers, one of the five firms to receive
Eurasia Foundation and OSI’s grants, said it’s likely to close if
they pay the license fee.

“This amount is absurd,” said Simikian. “We won’t have any income
under such conditions.”

Eurasia Foundation officials agree that the law comes at a very
untimely moment. “As a result of [our] programme, the circulation of
some newspapers grew significantly,” said Marina Mkhitarian, Eurasia’s
programme coordinator. “[This continued] until the distribution
companies encountered problems with taxation bodies because of their
lack of licenses.”

Government officials for their part defend the legislation by saying
that it in no way restricts the dissemination of the news. Delivery
is being licensed, not subscription, they say, and the law will
strengthen the distribution system and regulate deliveries, especially
to rural areas.

Tamara Ghalechian, spokesperson for the ministry of transport and
communications, said that the high license fee will help weed out
the field and assure that only companies that can provide the best
services will be involved in newspaper delivery.

“The state is establishing a regulating mechanism for companies which
are responsible for organising subscriptions, Ghalechian told IWPR.

Many do not buy this explanation, however. “What sense is there in
subscription, if there is no delivery?” asked Blitz distribution
company head Davtian.

Haipost officials guarantees that the company’s 904 post offices will
deliver all newspapers in a timely manner, even those to far-flung
regions. “We deliver newspapers to subscribers even in the most remote
villages,” said Haipost spokesperson Astghik Martirosian.

Martirosian supports the new legislation whole-heartedly. “If the state
believes that we need such a law, this means that we indeed need it,”
he said.

Interestingly, despite the benefits that their company will allegedly
reap, Haimamul officials say that they are opposed to the law. “The
number of newspapers is already very small and they do not reach
residents in the regions,” said Haimamul executive director Arshaluis

“Laws like this will lead to the total isolation of rural residents
from any information, since companies with small budgets will be
unable to pay and will have to halt their activities,” he said,
calling the legislation “the product of a morbid imagination”.

Arpi Harutunian is a reporter with weekly in
Yerevan. Seda Muradyan, IWPR’s Armenia coordinator, also contributed
to this article.

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