YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on Tuesday urged the Armenian media not to spread false and slanderous reports and insisted that his government is open to “fair” criticism of its policies.
“Falsifications, provocations, insults and labeling hamper the possibilities for dialogue, jeopardizing the very possibility of having it. For that reason, I once again urge you in the execution of your professional duties to be fair and comprehensive,” he said at a New Year reception organized for representatives of media outlets mostly loyal to the Armenian government.
The remarks seemed primarily addressed to newspapers highly critical of Sarkisian and staunchly supporting his most bitter political opponent, the Armenian National Congress of Levon Ter-Petrosian. Their editors and journalists were not invited to the reception held in the presidential palace.
Without naming anyone, Sarkisian said that “many” news organizations “honorably fulfill their mission.” “I wish that next year, it will not take you, the journalists too much courage to raise an important public issue,” he said.
Sarkisian claimed that his administration is interested in seeing the media expose “any shortcomings existing in the state structures and in our society.” “We need your honest and unbiased approach so that Armenian society, the entire state structure, different bodies and individuals see in the mirror of mass media their own genuine picture,” he said.
“It is crucial that the mirror is not fuzzy and the picture is not distorted,” cautioned the president.
The assurances contrasted with the Armenian leadership’s obvious reluctance to ease its de facto control over the political news coverage of the broadcast media, Armenians’ main source of information.
Earlier this month, state regulators again refused to grant a new broadcasting license to A1+, Armenia’s leading independent TV station that was controversially taken off the air in 2002. The refusal drew strong criticism from Armenian media associations and Western watchdogs like Human Rights Watch.
Giorgi Gogia, a regional representative of the New York-based group, described it as “another setback for freedom of expression and information in Armenia.” “It’s clear that keeping a critic off the air is more important to this government than its international legal obligations,” he said in a December 16 statement.
The government-controlled National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) also decided last Thursday not to grant a new broadcasting frequency to a smaller independent broadcaster based in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri. The decision means that the GALA TV channel, the country’s sole broadcaster regularly airing reports critical of the president, will go off the air in 2015.
The HRAH decisions on A1+ and GALA were part of Armenia’s ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting. The process is regulated by highly controversial amendments to an Armenian law on television and radio that was enacted by the authorities this summer amid serious concerns expressed by Western governments and rights organizations, including HRW.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her voice to those concerns when she visited Yerevan in July. Sarkisian assured her that his government is ready to address them by making further changes in the law.
Armenian officials have made clear, however, that those changes, if passed by parliament, will not be applicable to the ongoing distribution of new digital licenses valid for ten years.