It is the duty of the press to follow what the authorities are doing, how effective they are and to inform the public about it with timely, complete and accurate information. The restrictions applied in the National Assembly (NA) beginning on August 2, 2021, hinder the press from fulfilling its duty to society and significantly weaken access to information.
From August 2, 2021, strict restrictions were imposed on journalists carrying out their professional activity in the National Assembly. Firstly, journalists and cameramen were not allowed to enter the building where standing committees convene; they were no longer allowed to approach the offices of Civil Contract Party MPs, nor could they use some of the hallways where they usually recorded interviews and comments from MPs. A large number of security personnel were on guard, restricting the movement of journalists in the parliament building.
The journalistic community was justly asking for the legal basis and purpose for which there was a need to restrict the journalists’ work. It turned out that NA Speaker Alen Simonyan had decided that “Accredited journalists in the National Assembly carry out their professional activities in specially allocated places in the NA building, and can only carry out professional activities in places other than these with permission from the NA General Secretariat.”
The decision was made without prior discussion with journalists, and without even formally informing the media in advance about changes in working conditions. Within the community, the new decision raised more questions about the situation than it clarified. Where were those “specially allocated” places? Why was the media not familiarized with this draft decision? Why had they not had the opportunity to express an opinion on the matter? What was the crucial necessity to impose such restrictions within the body representing the people’s sovereignty? There are many questions, yet the official answers provided are emotional and vague.
On the same day, press outlets released a statement criticizing the NA leadership, emphasizing that these measures do not regulate the free activity of the media, but create groundless obstacles to their professional work. These steps are aimed at ensuring that parliamentarians are shielded from sharp questioning and the criticism of the press. They clearly undermine the transparency and accountability of the activities of the NA to the public.
Press outlets were demanding that the NA leadership:
- Immediately lift the restrictions that were imposed on media representatives on August 2, 2021
- Suspend the 5th point of the NA Speaker’s decision “On Making Amendments to Annex 1 of Decision NO-01-L of the Speaker of the National Assembly, dated February 12, 2019”, published on the same day, which refers to these restrictions
- Initiate broad discussions with the participation of the journalists accredited in the NA, their superiors, non-governmental media organizations and experts from international organizations, in order to best regulate the activities of the media in parliament and fundamentally resolve the existing problems
None of these demands received a proper official response. There was also initially no response to the case of Panorama.am photographer Lilian Galstyan, who was completely deprived of her accreditation on August 5 for having taken photos of security personnel at the NA. Media organizations, once again, issued a strongly-worded statement, criticizing this unprecedented move by the NA leadership. [On August 11, Panorama.am submitted a complaint to the NA, emphasizing that the decision to ban their photographer is illegal and contradicts the basic principles of the administration of the legislature. On August 16, Galstyan was informed that she is able to return to the NA to cover the “extraordinary sessions of the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia of the eighth convocation, including those to be convened on August 17 of this year.”]
On August 11, another fight broke out on the parliament floor. Simonyan ordered for the livestream of the parliamentary session to be cut, and security officers forbade journalists and cameramen from filming the incident from their allocated gallery. Vladimir Vardanyan, Civil Contract MP and Chair of the Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs, publicly stated, “Coverage of a fight is not the function of the media.”
The leadership of the National Assembly does not seem to understand why journalists should be in the National Assembly and perform their professional duty on behalf of the public. The presence of watchful eyes itself is a restraining factor for the behavior of the MPs. If we want the National Assembly to function normally, and the MPs to deliver quality work, we must ensure, even increase, the presence of journalists in the National Assembly. In a Facebook post, Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan affirmed that “A journalist should not be deprived of the right to receive ‘first-hand’ or ‘hot’ information, including the right to ask questions, conduct interviews or receive comments, on the spot.”
Transparency brings confidence, prevents illegalities and increases the reputation of the institution, while secrecy creates an expansive environment for rot and underhandedness, as well as misinformation, to thrive. This is the main objective of access to information in a democracy.
The protection of the press is especially strengthened in cases where the information is provided by a public body, as access (in the broadest sense of the term) to public information is specifically protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Secondly, the work of journalists in the National Assembly can be limited solely for two reasons: capacity and security. Specific and reasonable constraints arising from safety, capacity and other rational circumstances should be considered on a case-by-case basis with the involvement of representatives of the community, and should spring from the principles of necessity and proportionality. As Tatoyan mentioned, “It should be taken into account that we are talking about journalists accredited to the NA; furthermore, upon entering the NA, they are already subjected to inspections by the security services of the NA, including with the use of appropriate devices, so the application of further restrictions on them on the grounds that it is done for security purposes is unacceptable.”
In this particular case, there is a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on the right of journalists, as well as an individual photographer, to access information. Depriving a journalist of the right to access the activities of a public body on the grounds that “the rules of procedure of that body have not been observed” clearly violates the principle of legal certainty and gives the NA leadership full discretionary power to restrict the freedom of the press.
It is very important that, on this issue, the journalistic community has a common stance, demanding that the authorities remove such unprecedented restrictions immediately and that these issues be discussed publicly and jointly to find the best solution.
 – These rules are directly derived from international law (for example Mándli and others v. Hungary, judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 12 October 2020, complaint no. 63164/16, positions of the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, etc.).
 – See the Declaration of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on Freedom of Expression and Information, adopted on April 29, 1982; as well as Recommendation No. R (81) 19 on the access to information held by public authorities, Recommendation No. R (91) 10 on the communication to third parties of personal data held by public bodies; Recommendation No. R (97) 18 concerning the protection of personal data collected and processed for statistical purposes and Recommendation No. R (2000) 13 on a European policy on access to archives; as well as Recommendation No. R (2002)2on access to official documents and the Convention adopted on 18 June, 2009.