09 March 2009, 21:00

Levon Barsegyan (head of Journalists' Press Club "Asparez"): GALA TV Company is working, Armenian authorities slacken pressure on media

About a year ago in Armenia, the GALA TV Company, non-controlled by the authorities and based in the city of Gyumri, the second largest city of Armenia, managed to escape closing. Great efforts to this end were made by the Journalists' Press Club named "Asparez". Levon Barsegyan, President of this Gyumri-based Club, shared his views with the "Caucasian Knot" correspondent about today's situation in Armenian media and characterized the country's internal political processes.

The main mission of the "Asparez" Club, founded in 2000, is to defend the freedom of speech and professional rights and interests of journalists.

"Caucasian Knot": What is your characteristic of the situation today the Armenian media?

Levon Barsegyan (L.B.):
Firstly, we should differentiate among printed and electronic media. As to the latter, it should be noted that they are under almost total control of the state, with a single exception - the Gyumri-based GALA TV Company. Absolutely all its counterparts in Yerevan are under direct or indirect control of the authorities. They work under self-censorship, that is, they precisely know by themselves what is fit and what is unfit for broadcasting. In the time of any major and especially major events, like oppositional rallies in Yerevan or the "Case of Seven" trial, these TV Companies receive special instructions "from above".

Now, there is some slackening in pressure on mass media, which can be attributed to the fact that the authorities have hit their primary target - they have ensured their self-reproduction and, consequently, the pressure on journalists is now less. However, in special cases they are ready to re-tighten the pressure on journalists and, first of all, on those, who are closer to the political centre, that is, to the country's capital. I mean the workers of mass media of Yerevan and the adjacent Ararat Valley. That is, the farther from the centre of political events we are, the pressure is smaller.

"Caucasian Knot": How is the GALA TV Company, which managed to escape closing thanks to help of ordinary people, working today?

L.B.: The Company works OK; and even under total pressure from October 2007 to May 2008, the GALA kept broadcasting a series of analytical and information programmes. Today, it has eight programmes of the kind. You'll agree it's quite a lot. Its journalists give a detailed coverage for Gyumri residents of rallies of the opposition, the "Case of Seven" trial, etc. Believe me, Armenia has no population, informed better than the Gyumri townspeople.

"Caucasian Knot": You've noted that central media are under higher pressure than the regional ones.

L.B.: As compared to Yerevan, regions enjoy certain freedom, since the ones working in Yerevan have difficulties in criticizing the central power. They are more targeted, or allowed to be targeted, at local authorities. Thus, for example, their criticisms can cover a prefecture or a mayoralty for poor snow removal, etc.

Unlike the capital, media in regions are sometimes allowed to criticize the central government, but, on the contrary, the regional bodies, which are close to there and attentively watching everything, are beyond criticism.
The situation in printed media can be treated as miserable. The total number of regional editions is 35, with the aggregate circulation of about 30,000 copies. That is, every paper has a scanty circulation; besides, there are no dailies in the regions.

"Caucasian Knot": The PACE's report on Armenia's progress in fulfilling Resolutions 1609 and 1620 on functionality of democratic institutes makes a special accent on the situation with Armenian media. To what extent the Resolutions have been fulfilled in this area?

L.B.: There's no progress, no requirements have been fulfilled. Including the failure to find out and disclose the names of those who attacked journalists.

"Caucasian Knot": We know your position on helping political prisoner. The Club you head has organized fundraising in support of political prisoners' families. A year has expired after the presidential election that was accompanied by stormy post-electoral events. How can you assess the present internal political situation?

L.B.: Yes, a year has expired, but I don't see any political will exhibited by the authorities towards solving the numerous problems the country is facing. I see no desire in them to address these problems, not a single step towards starting any dialogue with the opposition was made. There are no changes in their position, which is based on the principle - to solve all the problems through repressions. Meanwhile, repressions are no solution to the problems; on the contrary, this is the way to still deepen them. I'd like to emphasize here the issue of responsibility of the authorities; in fact, the power means responsibility, first of all; however, the current leaders are trying to escape it in every possible way.

"Caucasian Knot": Now, a resonant trial is held in Yerevan, known as the "Case of Seven"; multiple trials were held in your city, and verdicts have been already passed. What's your attitude to these trials?

L.B.: I find all these cases to be forged, and accusations falsified. Our compatriot Ashot Zakaryan, a native of Gyumri, was sentenced to two years for hampering the work of the electoral commission. It's interesting to note here that according to the investigation, he hampered the work of the commission on February 19 at 2:30 p.m. Meanwhile, right at that time Ashot was in our Club "Asparez" holding a press conference, where ten journalists were present. We presented this evidence to the court, where 10 eyewitnesses asserted that the activist of the opposition Asot Zakaryan was holding a press conference in the Press Club "Asparez" on that day at 2:30 p.m. The document was attached to the file, but never taken into account and had no effect on the verdict. This is a bright example of how these trials are staged and cases are fabricated.

"Caucasian Knot": Recently, the US Department of State (DoS) and the Human Rights Watch published their reports on situation in the world with human rights. The opinions on the estimates given in these two reports are diametrically opposite. Which one do you stick to?

L.B.: The reports are truthful and brave. The DoS' report is a sort of a "yellow card" shown to our authorities, who did nothing positive to mitigate the internal political crisis that has flooded the country. I repeat: they don't want to take responsibility; they just feel aggrieved by the estimates presented in these reports. Tomorrow, this attitude of international institutes and major political centres will affect not only the image of Armenia, but the whole country as such.

For reference: Starting November 2007, the GALA TV Company was incessantly checked by tax inspection. In the opinion of Levon Barsegyan, President of the Gyumri-based Press Club "Asparez", and Vaan Khachatryan, Director of the GALA, the tax checks and other authorities' steps against this TV Company were related to the electoral processes. In particular, persecutions began after broadcasting the performance of the first president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan at the rally on October 26.

According to the verdict of the administrative court of March 19, 2008, the Gyumri-based GALA TV Company was obliged to pay a fine in favour of the tax inspection in the sum of 26,899,986 drams, or 90,000 US dollars. Otherwise, the GALA's property was to be sold at the auction, and its broadcasting license withdrawn.

Under the then circumstances, the GALA TV Company applied for support to its audience and broad public. On March 25, already by 6 p.m. local time, the required sum had been raised. Now, the Company's directorate is in the process of returning the money to the citizens who had rendered their financial support to the Company a year ago.

Author: Lilit Ovanisyan; Source: CK correspondent

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