The reported beating of the editor of a leading Armenian newspaper has sparked domestic and international concerns about the state of press freedom in Armenia. The September 6 incident was the latest in a series of attacks against local journalists critical of the government. Armenian media associations, Western watchdogs, and even some state officials in Yerevan fear that they could become more frequent in the run-up to parliamentary elections due early next year.
In an extraordinary statement on September 12, the Yerevan office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it is “deeply concerned over recent incidents of violence and intimidation against local journalists that have obstructed their professional duties and infringed upon the freedom of expression.” It urged the Armenian authorities to “undertake prompt measures to ensure the safety of media professionals.”
Armen Harutiunian, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman and a former aide to President Robert Kocharian, echoed these concerns in unusually blunt terms on September 14. “Freedom of speech is really in danger,” he told a news conference, faulting law-enforcement authorities for their failure, both now and in the past, to identify and punish the guilty.
Hovannes Galajian of Iravunk, an opposition-linked bi-weekly, claims to have been ambushed and beaten up by two burly men with very short haircuts outside his Yerevan home in broad daylight. Police promptly announced a criminal investigation into what six local journalist organizations and other civic groups jointly condemned as “yet another act of terror against a journalist.” But nobody has been arrested or questioned so far.
The Iravunk staff have attributed the incident to their hard-hitting coverage of the government and its loyalists. They have pointed out in particular that one of their recent articles attacked and derided the powerful Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, effectively implicating the latter in Galajian’s reported beating. “I don’t fight against or punish pitiful people,” Sarkisian angrily shot back on September 7, in remarks that only stoked the furor. In a front-page editorial, Haykakan Zhamanak, Armenia’s best-selling daily, advised Sarkisian to look for “pitiful people” in his entourage. If there is anything the Armenian media can be blamed for, wrote the paper, it is the fact that “we tolerate [Sarkisian] and the likes of him at the helm of our state.”
Galajian’s description of his attackers matches the appearance of two-dozen thugs that indiscriminately attacked journalists covering an opposition demonstration in Yerevan in April 2004. Scores of riot police stood by and looked on as these thugs smashed video and still cameras that filmed their attempts to disrupt the protest. They were widely believed to be bodyguards of “oligarchs” loyal to the ruling regime. Two prominent opposition politicians and a human rights activist, who were also beaten around that time, gave very similar descriptions of their attackers.
Galajian reported the assault just weeks after a Molotov cocktail was hurled at the offices of Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, another paper highly critical of the Kocharian administration. One of its freelance correspondents, Gagik Shamshian, has for months faced alleged harassment by Mher Hovannisian, mayor of Yerevan’s rundown Nubarashen suburb, who was cast in negative light in his news reports. Shamshian claimed to have been attacked and robbed by a group of men led by Hovannisian’s brother and lodged a complaint to the police last June. The latter responded by launching criminal proceedings against the reporter, citing grave “complaints” filed against him by local residents. Police officers searched and sealed off Shamshian’s rented apartment in Nubarashen in early August, effectively forcing him to move out of the district.
In another media-related development, the young editor of the independent newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan, Arman Babajanian, was sentenced to four years in prison on September 8 on charges of illegally avoiding military service. The sentence was quite harsh by Armenian standards, as individuals convicted of draft evasion are usually jailed for between two and three years. Babajanian, who was arrested in June, admitted to draft dodging during his two-week trial but insisted that he would not have been prosecuted if his paper supported the government. Most of his fellow newspaper editors have also alleged political motives behind the case. “Given the history of politicized prosecution of journalists in Armenia, we are skeptical about the appropriateness of this sentence,” the executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Joel Simon, said in a September 11 statement.
Some local journalists fear that all of these cases might be part of a government effort to crack down on Armenia’s diverse and vibrant print media, which is dominated by pro-opposition publications. The authorities already maintain tight control over the news reporting of every Armenian television and radio station, something that they consider vital for their continued grip on power. (The only TV channel not controlled by Kocharian was controversially pulled off the air in 2002.) The newspapers are seen as less of a threat to the regime due to their small circulations.
Meanwhile, on September 15 Kocharian granted top state awards to a dozen editors and journalists from TV stations, news agencies, and newspapers controlled by or loyal to him. Five of them were given the Soviet-era title of “honored journalist,” which Kocharian restored after he came to power in 1998. Ironically, the presidential awards were timed to coincide with the 15th anniversary of Armenia’s declaration independence from the Soviet Union, which will be officially celebrated on September 21.
(Statement by the Armenian president’s office, Aravot, September 15; Statement by the OSCE office in Yerevan, September 12; Statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists, September 11; Haykakan Zhamanak, RFE/RL Armenia Report, August 9)