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Assaults and a suspected firebombing have left the staff of two Armenian newspapers worrying about a politically-inspired clampdown on the media
By Mark Grigorian

A spate of vicious attacks on Armenian newspaper offices has prompted fears that freedom of speech in the former Soviet republic could be under threat.

The latest incident came on New Year's Eve when a mysterious fire broke out in the offices of Novoe Vremya ("New Time") in Yerevan. Senior editorial staff believe the blaze was caused deliberately, citing an anonymous caller who threatened the editor-in-chief and his deputy. Fortunately, the office was empty at the time and the fire was extinguished before it could cause any serious damage.

Novoe Vremya's editor-in-chief Ruben Satian said that, three hours after firefighters left the scene, he was phoned at home by a man who claimed to have set the premises alight. The caller, who refused to identify himself, added that, if the newspaper did not "see reason", Satian's flat would also be torched.

Deputy editor Artem Yerkanian said this was not an isolated incident. "I got a call at the beginning of December," he said. "A man said that I would be called up for military service and the army would make my life a misery."

The Novoe Vremya staff believe the threats were prompted by a series of outspoken articles printed in the paper in the wake of last year's terrorist attack on the Armenian Parliament. The October 27 shooting claimed the lives of the prime-minister, the parliamentary speaker and six senior officials. Novoe Vremya subsequently criticised a congress of the Yerkrapah organization which has repeatedly called for President Robert Kocharian to resign. Yerkrapah is an association of Karabakh war veterans with close links to the army and wide political influence.

Other leading Armenian publications have also reported attempts to intimidate their employees. Nikol Pashinian, editor-in-chief of the daily Haykakan Zhamanak ("Armenian Time"), says between 10 and 12 men burst into the newsroom on December 23 and assaulted several male members of staff. As a result, the newspaper was unable to print its Friday edition. Pashinian refused to comment on the incident but other sources suggest the attack may have been connected with a short article which appeared in Haykakan Zhamanak's business section that day.

Press organisations in Armenia have been unwilling to make official statements on either of the attacks. Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association of Armenia, said: "It is difficult to talk about freedom of speech in a police state like Armenia. Any attempts by journalists or newspapers to speak openly about certain issues have always outraged the rich and powerful. Novoe Vremya is well known for its independent approach to various political problems. This act of vandalism should be seen as an attempt by the regime to keep up its pressure on freedom of speech."

Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project associate in Yerevan and Director of the Armenian NGO Cooperation and Democracy.

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