Two high profile assaults on journalists in Armenia during the first week of May have highlighted the vulnerability of media as capital Yerevan heads into municipal elections. The stakes are high in the pre-election campaign period of Yerevan’s municipal elections which will, for the first time in more than 15 years create an elected elderly council and a mayor with enough economic and executive powers to challenge the authority of the country’s president.
Attacks in 2009
On January 16 photojournalist Gagik Shamshian was knocked off his feet by a policeman while shooting the protest action staged in front of Shangavit community court where hearings on seven opposition figures charged in relation to March 1-2, 2008 post-election violence in Yerevan was taking place. The journalist told RFE/RL he had suffered a blow on his head falling down after being pushed by the policeman.
On February 24 “Haikakan Zhamanak” newspaper published an article “Now the Military Police. Was a New Bug Being Installed?”, reporting that on Saturday February 21 at one of the Yerevan streets an employee of the daily, the Executive Editor Hrach Hakobian, was detained. As the article noted, Hrach Hakobian was taken to the RA Military Police, where he was kept for 9 hours.
On March 13 photojournalist Gagik Shamshian, was beaten up and hospitalized in an attack as a result of a brawl with security guards at Yerevan’s State Linguistic University after V. Bryusov. The guards refused to let Shamshian and several other journalists enter the building. The journalists wanted to interview its rector, Suren Zolian, on corruption allegations against professors of state-run universities. Shamshian was toppled and kicked in the abdomen and crotch by two guards after defying their orders to leave the building. The photographer complained of severe pain in the lower abdomen area and bled heavily after taking refuge in the nearby office of RFE/RL’s Yerevan bureau. The photojournalist was hospitalized and diagnozed with injury of urogenital tract and internal hemorrhage.
On April 8, “A1+” TV journalist David Jalalian, according to the reports by “A1+” was assaulted by the police when trying to photograph the protest action staged by opposition supporters on Yerevan’s Northern Avenue. Jalalian felt unwell upon his return to “A1+” editorial office and was taken to hospital, where he received ambulatory treatment.
On April 30, at about 5.00, Argishti Kivirian, Director of “Bagin” legal company, Coordinator of ARMENIA Today news agency, was badly beaten by unknown assailants outside his Yerevan apartment. Relatives of the journalist later reported that attackers used bats to beat the journalist. The journalist was hospitalized and placed under intensive care with severe wounds on the head.
On May 6 Never Mnatsakanian, a prominent TV anchor and observer of “Shant” TV company was attacked by two strangers at the entrance of his house. The journalist was knocked off his feet, calling for help. As neighbors approached, the assaulters escaped. The journalist was taken to hospital, where he received light medical treatment and was diagnosed with non-grave physical injuries.
In most of examples cited above, except for the case of Argishti Kivirian, the journalists linked the attacks with their professional journalistic activities. There are speculations in the case of Kivirian, that the attack might have also been related to the activities of his wife, Lusine Sahakian, a prominent lawyer who has become famous as the defense lawyer of former Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian, who was arrested shortly after publicly voicing support for opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in February 2008.
Media Watchdogs Voice Concern
Armenian media watchdogs have continuously called the authorities to investigate and punish the assaulters, noting, that attacks on journalists has become a “social disaster in Armenia”, specifically citing failure by the authorities, the law enforcement bodies to act forcefully to investigate, uncover cases of attacks and punish perpetrators, as a reason for continuous attacks on journalists.
In the statement issued by 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 civil society organizations, the NGOs specifically note, 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 unruly.”
In it’s report released in March 2009, entitled “2009 report on violations of Media and Journalists Rights in Armenia” the local media watchdog, The Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, marked 2008 as the ‘unprecedented’ year in terms of attacks on journalists and limitations of freedom of speech in Armenia and listing 18 cases of physical attacks on journalists in 2008. The experts of the Committee said the unprecedented rise in attacks against journalists is linked to the presidential elections held in February 2008, which were followed by violent clashes in capital Yerevan between the police forces and opposition supporters.
Speaking to RFE/RL on May 19, the Chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, Ashot Melikian found it hard to explain, what is the reason for continuous attacks against journalists in 2009.
“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”, Ashot Melikian said.