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As Yerevan burned, Armenian journalists remained glued to polls in Russia

Damage control: Soldiers patrol in a street in downtown Yerevan, Armenia, March 2, 2008. Troops and armoured vehicles patrolled the main streets of Armenia's capital following violent protests that left eight dead, more than 100 injured and led the president to declare a 20-day state of emergency.Photo: Associated Press (AP)

As riots tore through Armenian capital Yerevan, the country's journalists remained preocupied with the presidential elections in neighbouring Russia. The people of the city had to fall back on outside news sources to know what was happenning in their own backyard.

And now, with Armenian President Robert Kocharian declaring an emergency to control the violence, among the first to face its brunt has been the news media itself — the news media may now publish materials on state and internal political issues only within the framework of official information. News flow would now be regulated.

Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency after clashes between government troops and opposition supporters in the capital, Yereven, resulted in eight deaths and more than 100 injuries, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said quoting international press reports.

Protesters claimed that vote-rigging marred the February 19 presidential election that ended in victory for Kocharian’s hand-picked successor, Serzh Sarkisian. Hundreds of troops were deployed in Yerevan to clamp down on the demonstrations. The state of emergency also banned public gatherings, set travel restrictions, and gave police expanded search powers, CPJ said quoting international news accounts.

As part of the declaration, Kocharian ordered media outlets to cite only official sources when reporting on national politics. Several independent and opposition news websites that operate under Armenian domain names were also blocked Monday.

They included websites run by the pro-opposition news agency A1+ and the independent newspapers Aravot (Morning) and Aikakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time), according to news agency Armenia Today. Armenia Today reported that local Internet users received a message that said: “Warning! As ordered by a state decree, some informational Web sites will not be accessible.” The Armenian Service of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was blocked within the country.

“We’re alarmed by this blatant attempt to censor news of the disputed election,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on Armenian authorities to withdraw the ban on independent newsgathering and dissemination, and restore access to independent and opposition media.”

Sarkisian took about 53 per cent of the vote on February 19, and is due to take office in April. Rival candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was Armenia’s first post-Soviet president, contested the results and claimed the election was rigged, according to RFE/RL.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the election, said the vote was mostly in conformance with international standards. But OSCE monitors noted flaws in vote-counting and said officials blurred partisan and governmental interests.

Up to 20,000 Ter-Petrosian supporters began rallying in Yerevan on February 21; their scepticism about the results was fanned when two Central Elections Commission members and a deputy prosecutor general publicly questioned the fairness of the vote, RFE/RL reported.

Authorities deployed police when Ter-Petrosian’s supporters built a tent camp on the capital’s Freedom Square and groups of protesters staged rallies in front of different government buildings, news agency Regnum reported. The stand-off reached its peak on Saturday morning when police, claiming that they had received reports of alleged arms distribution and coup plotting, started dismantling the tents, according to local press reports.

Angered protesters, in turn, attacked police with metal rods and Molotov cocktails, burned cars, and looted local shops, Reutersreported. The protests calmed when Ter-Petrosian called on Sunday for a halt to the violence, Regnum said.

Date posted: March 4, 2008 Date modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 935