Press freedom in Armenia has come under direct attack by police in Yerevan -- with accredited journalists being beaten and detained, and their equipment destroyed.
The violence on June 23 targeted reporters, photographers, and video crews who had documented the way police used water cannon and batons to disperse a three-day old street protest in Yerevan against electricity price hikes.
Authorities smashed phones, cameras, and video equipment of many journalists, even confiscating the memory cards of those who had filmed the heavy-handed police crackdown.
The police violence appears to have fueled further protests and has also raised complaints from the international media rights group Reporters Without Borders, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's media-freedom watchdog, and the U.S. and British embassies in Yerevan.
RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports that a senior commander from Armenia's national police force played a direct role in the violence. Cameraman Garik Azibekian said Levon Yeranosian, the deputy chief of the national police force, tried to physically assault him after he had identified himself as a member of RFE/RL's Armenian Service.
Azibekian said that after he backed away from Yeranosian's attempt to punch him, the deputy police chief ordered four plainclothes officers to grab him, and severely beat him.
The plainclothes police punched Azibekian repeatedly in the face and torso and forced him to the ground, kicking both of his kneecaps so severely that his knees were swollen.
Police also smashed two cameras that were providing RFE/RL's live Internet video stream of the unfolding drama and damaged other RFE/RL equipment.
RFE/RL journalists Garik Harutyunian and Sisak Gabrielian also were beaten by the police, while the phone of Artur Papian was smashed and his SIM card was confiscated.
'They Were Grabbing Cameras'
Gabrielian says it was clear that police intentionally attacked journalists with photos and video of the early morning crackdown against street protesters who had blocked Baghramian Avenue in central Yerevan since the night before.
"After police had cleared the area, the plainclothes police came after the journalists intentionally," Gabrielian said. "They came at the journalists who had been filming the crackdown."
"They were trying to grab cameras, confiscate their materials, and break all of the equipment that had made videos," Gabrielian explained. "They knew exactly where the memory cards were in each piece of equipment. They took out all of the memory cards and left the journalists with their broken cameras."
Gabrielian said he knew of at least 10 other journalists from different media companies who were detained and taken away to several different police stations and detention centers. They include RFE/RL's Harutyunian, Armenia-TV reporter David Davtian and his cameraman, independent journalist Gevorg Ghazarian, and GALA-TV cameraman Pailak Fahradian.
Fahradian said he had bruises on his face after being "beaten, kicked, and hit, and forcefully taken to a detention center by the police in the presence of other police."
Fahradian said that when he identified himself as a journalist to Yerevan police chief Ashot Karapetian, the senior police officer ordered other officers to "take him." His laptop was smashed.
Also detained were Ani Hovhannisian and Hrant Galstian, both reporters for Armenia's online Hetq newspaper, which is published by a nongovernmental organization called Investigative Journalists. Hovhannisian said she was beaten by police.
Karapet Sahakian, a photographer from Panorama.am, was also beaten.
Others who complained of being physically attacked, mistreated, verbally assaulted, and detained by police while covering the demonstration include journalists from Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time) and its English-language website, and the online news agencies News.am, PanArmenian.net, Espress.am, and Arajin.am.
Ani Gevorgian, a photographer working for the nongovernmental organization Journalists For Human Rights, said she was slapped by a policeman who she recognized as the same officer who had tried to confiscate her camera while she was working four months earlier.
Arpi Makhsudian, a journalist for CvilNet TV, said she was hit by a police officer while she was filming the unfolding events with her mobile phone and was forced to stop.
PHOTO GALLERY: Armenian Police Forcibly Disperse Protesters
Protests Simply Grow
By noon on June 23, the authorities had cleared away the demonstrators who were blocking Baghramian Avenue near President Serzh Sarkisian's office, and also forced protesters from their base at Yerevan's Liberty Square.
But by the evening of June 23, protesters returned to Liberty Square in even larger numbers than had been there during the previous three days -- protesting both the electricity price hikes and the excessive use of force by police against demonstrators and journalists.
At that point, it was the police who were blocking Baghramian Avenue after having closed it to all traffic.
RFE/RL's editor in chief, Nenad Pejic, protested the use of violence by police against RFE/RL journalists and other members of the media covering the demonstrations."Our colleagues were doing their job, reporting for the benefit of the Armenian public. We condemn such interference," he said.
“This was a brutal and unacceptable attack, outside any norms of acceptable police behavior,” added RFE/RL's Armenian Service Director Harry Tamrazian. “Police prevented our reporters from fulfilling their journalistic duty today.”
Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk for Reporters Without Borders, also condemned "the police violence against journalists who were just doing their job in a law-abiding manner." He said that "the actions of the police must not be unpunished or else their violent behavior will recur and could become the norm. The policemen who attacked the journalists must be brought to justice."
WATCH: Yerevan Protest Live Stream (RFE/RL's Armenian Service, natural sound)
The OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, described the violence in Yerevan as "coercive actions by police against journalists covering a public protest." She said that the media "has the right to cover public events and journalists must be able to report in a free and safe manner, without fear of harassment and intimidation."
Speaking in Bonn, Germany, at a global media forum, Mijatovic called on the Armenian authorities to "promptly investigate these incidents and take steps to ensure restraint" on the part of police toward journalists in the future.
Most of the detained journalists appear to have been released from custody later on June 23. But Gunnar Vrang, the spokesman for the OSCE's media-freedom monitor, told RFE/RL it was "deplorable" that the journalists were detained "as I understand it, without any due cause."
The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan expressed concern about reports of excessive force by police to disperse demonstrators on the morning of June 23, and said it was "troubled by reports that journalists and their equipment were specifically targeted during the operation."
Britain's embassy in Yerevan said it was "particularly concerned about reports on the use of force against journalists and the deliberate destruction or confiscation of their equipment; the widespread reports of men in plainclothes acting together with the police; and reports of excessive use of force against people who were not resisting arrest."
Both Britain and the United States have called on Armenia's government to conduct a full and transparent investigation, and to take appropriate action in accordance with Armenian law.