Representatives of several media, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s staff reporters, met with obstacles while performing their professional duties at some polling stations as they were covering the vote in Armenia’s tense parliamentary by-election on Sunday. Force was used at least in one case to deny reporters access to a polling station following an illegal demand made by the precinct’s official.
The parliamentary mandate in constituency N10 is being contested by three candidates, including Nikol Pashinian, an opposition member and newspaper editor currently in jail while his trial on charges related to the 2008 post-election clashes is continuing. This circumstance as well as at least one major instance of violence against Pashinian supporters during the election campaign set the stage for a tense election on January 10.
Shortly after the polls opened on Sunday morning chairman of the election commission in precinct 10/19 Gagik Baghdasarian ordered police and unknown persons to prevent media, including RFE/RL’s reporter, from covering the process, which resulted in a brawl. Unknown persons tried to break the microphone of RFE/RL’s reporter and also hit Gagik Shamshian, a freelance photo reporter contributing to two opposition daily newspapers.
Despite the fact that the journalists had shown their cards, the head of the precinct commission first demanded that they also produce their passports, something which is not required under Armenia’s Electoral Code. The official refused to let the journalists into the polling precinct even after they produced their passports. He claimed that their presence would obstruct the voting process.
An Armenian Helsinki Association observer at the polling station drew up a protocol about the violation.
A similar incident took place at polling precinct 10/24 where the commission head tried to obstruct the work of “Zhamanak” daily reporter Marine Kharatian.
Talking to RFE/RL, Marine Kharatian said that the official, Stepan Adamian, denied her access to the premises on the basis of her reporter’s card and demanded that she show her passport. According to Kharatian, she cited the election law and refused to produce her ID, which led the chairman and members of the commission to attempt to force the journalist out of the precinct. The chairman of the commission, however, dropped his illegitimate claims and allowed the journalist to proceed with her professional duties after checking that provision of the law.
Tatev Ohanian, a spokeswoman for the Central Election Commission, later confirmed to RFE/RL that the actions of both officials were against the law.
The campaign leading to the Sunday vote was also marred by violence against activists of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) that supports Pashinian’s election bid.
A dozen young HAK activists were beaten up by a larger group of unknown people while they were conducting a house-to-house campaign urging Yerevan residents to vote for Pashinian. The HAK blamed the attack on the Republican Party of Armenia and presented it as another indication that the ruling party was backing Pashinian’s main rival Ara Simonian.
However, Simonian has all along denied that he enjoys the support of the authorities and has pledged to work to exclude vote riggings.
Also, while on her beat at the candidate’s campaign headquarters on Sunday, RFE/RL’s video journalist Karine Simonian was confronted by a group of young men who denied her access to the premises and prevented her from making the recording. One of them threatened to break the reporter’s video camera and made menacing moves to prove the seriousness of his intention, causing Simonian to stop her work.
In a separate case, Ara Simonian’s proxy at one polling station had a heated argument with a “Hayk” newspaper reporter, the proxy of Pashinian and an observer. He insisted that the reporter was not entitled to record unless she was accredited, which is not the case under Armenian law. The argument ended only after the deputy head of the precinct commission stepped in to let the journalist proceed with her work.