Armenia: Backdoor Censorship Fears

Newspaper distribution law could severely restrict circulation of opposition titles.

Armenia: Backdoor Censorship Fears

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 regions.

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 Manukian.

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

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