By Karine Kalantarian
The owner of an independent Armenian regional television, who was allegedly beaten by thugs linked to the local government head late last month, was kidnapped and taken to an unknown location on Friday, his employees claimed.
Azniv Chizmechian, director of the channel based in Abovian, 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, told the Armenian Union of Journalists (AUJ) that her boss, Artashes Mehrabian, called her later in the day, asking to stop broadcasts. She said Mehrabian spoke with an agitated voice and gave no other details of his whereabouts.
The report led to an emergency meeting of AUJ and several other media associations that expressed their dismay at the latest twist in the Abovian TV saga. Their leaders decided to request a meeting with President Robert Kocharian in the hope of conveying their concerns about Mehrabian’s safety and broader press freedom in Armenia.
There was no response to their request from the presidential administration as of late evening. The chief of Kocharian’s press office, Hasmik Petrosian, said she contacted authorities in Abovian and they denied having any knowledge of the alleged abduction.
Mehrabian and Chizmechian were reportedly attacked and beaten on August 24 by a group of young men they say were hired by Abovian’s controversial mayor, Karo Israelian, infuriated by the channel’s criticism of the mayor’s office. They claim to have been personally threatened and intimidate by Israelian just hours after the attack.
The mayor has sharply denied the allegations, but confirmed his unhappiness with Abovian TV’s coverage of local affairs, accusing the channel of having links with his political opponents.
The local police opened a criminal investigation into the violent incident but have not yet charged anyone, leading the channel’s staff to accuse them of a cover-up. Chizmechian and her journalists demanded that the inquiry be conducted by prosecutors from Yerevan. A spokesman for the Armenian prosecutor-general’s office told RFE/RL on Friday that it has granted the request.
Late on Thursday, Chizmechian phoned AUJ chairwoman Astghik Gevorgian, to tell that the Abovian television is surrounded by a group of men and that she and Mehrabian are afraid to leave the building. The information could not be confirmed from other sources.
The media associations and human rights groups, meanwhile, plan to stage a joint demonstration on Monday in support of the embattled Abovian TV and the rights of Armenian journalists. One activist, Avetik Ishkhanian, warned of more government inroads on press freedom as the forthcoming local, presidential and parliamentary elections approach. “Just imagine how they are going to deal with journalists during the elections,” he said.
The reported violence in Abovian came amid domestic and international concerns about press freedom in Armenia that were engendered by the politically charged closure last April of the country’s main independent TV station, A1+. Reflecting those concerns, senior Yerevan-based diplomats from several European Union member states visited Abovian on a fact-finding mission last week. They issued no official statements afterwards.