By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading media associations demanded on Tuesday that the authorities respect freedom of speech, accusing them of failing to identify and punish the perpetrators of unprecedented violence against journalists that covered recent opposition demonstrations.
“We again demand respect for the public’s right to receive and the journalists’ right to spread information and prevention of any attempts to infringe on them,” said a joint statement released by the Yerevan Press Club, the Armenian Union of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech and the Armenian branch of the U.S. Internews organization.
The statement dismissed as a “farce” the trial earlier this month of two men who were fined 100,000 drams ($185) each for taking part in the April 5 attack on photojournalists present at an opposition rally in downtown Yerevan. They were part of a larger group of burly men that tried to disrupt the protest, throwing eggs at its organizers and setting off firecrackers. The thugs, who reportedly work for government-connected wealthy individuals, went on to indiscriminately smash most of the video and still cameras that caught their faces. Dozens of police officers led by General Hovannes Varian stood by and refused to intervene.
“Neither the investigating body nor the court showed a desire to protect the journalists’ right to collect and disseminate information, not to mention the fact that the imposed punishment was not commensurate with the deed,” the media groups said.
“We expected that there will be other revelations and trials but nothing has been done over the past period to identify the perpetrators of the other violent acts,” they added, pointing to the beating by the police of four journalists covering the brutal break-up of the April 12-13 protest near President Robert Kocharian’s Yerevan residence.
One of those journalists, Hayk Gevorgian of the “Haykakan Zhamanak,” says that Varian, who is the deputy chief of the national police service, personally stole his camera before ordering subordinates to attack him. Gevorgian spent two weeks recovering from severe injuries sustained during the beating. Ashot Melikian of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech deplored the fact Varian has faced no official inquiries or any disciplinary action over the allegations.
The joint statement also urged Armenian journalists to close ranks in the face of what its signatories see as a government effort to further curb press freedoms in the country. According to Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), the Armenian media community must consider violence against a single journalist an affront to free speech.
The Armenian media’s coverage of the recent standoff between the government and the opposition was scrutinized at a seminar held by the YPC on Tuesday. Levon Barseghian, chairman of the Asparez Club of journalists in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri, described it as largely “distorted,” singling out local television stations for criticism.
“TV and radio stations seem to have an invisible bar which they are not allowed to cross in order to speak more freely and criticize the authorities, especially Robert Kocharian,” Barseghian told the seminar. He was particularly scathing about the Kocharian-controlled state television’s coverage of the confrontation, denouncing it as “adverse and disastrous.”
In Navasardian’s words, this situation makes even more urgent the reopening of A1+, Armenia’s sole major private network that was often critical of the authorities. A1+ was controversially forced off the air more than two years ago. The authorities have since resisted strong international pressure for its reopening. The continuing ban on A1+ is the main reason why the Armenian media was recently rated “not free” by Freedom House, a New York-based human rights group, for the second consecutive year.
Addressing the Council of Europe last week, Kocharian disputed assertions that Armenia’s electronic have lacked diversity and pluralism since A1+’s closure and urged the Strasbourg-based organization to remove the issue from the agenda of its ongoing monitoring of his administration’s human rights record.
But Navasardian disagreed, saying that A1+’s return to the airwaves is “the only chance to have an independent electronic media outlet in Armenia.” “Journalists or a group of journalists do not have the resources and the political cover to set up such a television channel,” he said. “That is the reason why we talk so much about A1+.”