Two high profile assaults on journalists in Armenia during the first week of May have highlighted the vulnerability of the media as Yerevan, the capital, heads into municipal elections. The stakes are high in these polls, which will, for the first time in more than 15 years, create an elected elderly council and a mayor with enough economic and executive power to challenge the authority of the country's president.
Attacks in 2009
On January 16, photojournalist Gagik Shamshian was knocked to the ground by a policeman while photographing a protest in front of the Shangavit Community Court, where hearings were being held for seven opposition figures charged in relation to the March 1-2, 2008 post-election violence in Yerevan. The journalist told RFE/RL that he had suffered a blow to his head as he fell down after being pushed by the policeman.
On February 24, “Haikakan Zhamanak” newspaper reported on the detention of their Executive Editor, Hrach Hakobian, three days earlier in an article entitled “Now the Military Police: Was a New Bug Being Installed?” Mr. Hakobian was allegedly picked up on a Yerevan street and taken to the Military Police, where he was kept for 9 hours.
On March 13 photojournalist Gagik Shamshian was again beaten after security guards at Yerevan’s Bryusov State Linguistic University refused him and several other journalists entry to the building. The journalists had sought to interview the University’s rector, Suren Zolian, about corruption allegations against professors at state-run universities. After refusing to leave the premises, Shamshian was knocked down by two guards and brutally kicked in the abdomen and crotch. He complained of severe pain in the lower abdomen area and bled heavily as he took refuge in the nearby office of RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with internal hemorrhage and an injury to his urogenital tract.
On April 8, "A1+" TV journalist David Jalalian was reportedly assaulted by police while attempting to photograph a protest staged by opposition supporters on Yerevan's Northern Avenue. Jalalian felt unwell upon his return to the “A1+” editorial office and was taken to the hospital, where he received emergency treatment.
On April 30, Argishti Kivirian, Director of the “Bagin” legal company which coordinates the ARMENIA Today news agency, was badly beaten by unknown assailants outside his Yerevan apartment. Relatives of the journalist reported that the attackers used bats to beat him. Kivirian was hospitalized and placed under intensive care with severe wounds to the head.
On May 6, Never Mnatsakanian, a prominent TV anchor for the “Shant” TV company, was attacked by two strangers at the entrance of his house. He was knocked off his feet and called for help. As neighbors approached, the assailants fled. The journalist sustained mild injuries and was taken to the hospital.
In all but one of the cases cited above, the journalists linked the attacks to their professional activities. In the case of Kivirian, some speculate that the attack might have been related to the activities of his wife, Lusine Sahakian. A prominent lawyer, she was the defense council for the former Deputy Prosecutor, General Gagik Jahangirian, who was arrested shortly after declaring support for opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in February 2008.
Media Watchdogs Voice Concern
Armenian media watchdogs have repeatedly called on authorities to investigate the incidents and punish those responsible, noting that attacks on journalists have become a “social disaster in Armenia.” They cite the failure of law enforcement bodies to investigate the attacks and bring the perpetrators to account as a reason for continued violence against journalists.
A joint statement issued by the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, Yerevan Press Club, Internews Media Support NGO, Media Diversity Institute-Armenia, “Asparez” Journalist’s Club, Vanadzor Press Club and other groups states that “Radical and effective steps are needed. These steps have to be taken, first of all, by the authorities, the law enforcement bodies, and it is their inaction and failure to uncover the previous cases that allow the perpetrators, assaulting the freedom of speech, to act more boldly and without restraint.”
In its March 2009 “Report on Violations of Media and Journalists Rights in Armenia” the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, a local media watchdog, marked 2008 as an 'unprecedented' year in terms of attacks on journalists and limitations on freedom of speech, citing 18 cases of physical attacks on journalists last year. The Report stated that the unprecedented rise in attacks against journalists is linked to the presidential elections held in February 2008, which were followed by violent clashes in Yerevan between police forces and opposition supporters.
Speaking to RFE/RL on May 19, Ashot Melikian, the Committee’s Chairman, found it hard to explain the recent spate of attacks against journalists.
"It is surprising that the municipal elections in 2009, which were supposed to pass in a more relaxed atmosphere as compared to 2008 Presidential elections, are, nevertheless, marred with cases of violations and incidents with journalists. I think it is a consequence of incredible pressures in 2008. Nobody bore legal responsibility [for the assaults made in 2008] and as a consequence, these pressures continue," Melikian said.
(by Artur Papyan, RFE/RL Armenian Service)