A report aired during last week’s evening show on Armenia’s Public Television sparked criticism among human rights activists who insist that female prison inmates featured in the program became a target of unsolicited ridicule.
As part of the “Fine Evening” show broadcast on March 8, a public holiday marking Women’s Day in Armenia, a young woman apparently posing as an ingénue reporter interviewed seven female convicts serving their sentences in a penitentiary in Abovian, a town some 15 kilometers to the northeast of capital Yerevan. The reporter asked some frivolous ‘girly’ questions, including whether there were any “cute guys among the guards”, and the answers of the women were accompanied with off-screen giggles.
Zaruhi Hovannisian, a member of the public group engaged in prison monitoring, said the show raised some questions that needed to be answered by the Ministry of Justice.
“Were these women aware of how their words would later be edited [for the report] and whether a laugh track would be added? Secondly, did these women have the opportunity to choose whether to answer or not or the prison administration itself chose the women who were to answer the reporter’s questions?” she queried.
The show also raised eyebrows in the media community because dozens of journalists in Armenia are known to have difficulty in accessing prisons for filming. Some have to wait for months before their requests are likely to be rejected for some reason.
“It turns out that access to prisons for investigative journalists is banned and for those who film for entertainment purposes it is not,” complained Grisha Balasanian, a journalist writing for the Hetq magazine.
Balasanian said he had been waiting for permission to film at the hospital for convicts for already a year. “I have made a request to the chief of the establishment and have also turned to the minister of justice… During the year I have periodically received rejections with the explanation that they are too busy,” the investigative journalist said.
The Hraparak daily encountered the same attitude from the penitentiary department as its request for filming inside a prison located in a Yerevan suburb for the purpose of getting acquainted with the conditions of prison cells, the library and the canteen was rejected.
“We make a request to visit some convict at some penitentiary and get a cynical reply that they cannot let a journalist in because of the [administration’s] being busy,” Hraparak editor Armine Ohanian said, adding that the ombudsman officially confirmed to her that the refusal was unlawful.
RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) asked the Penitentiary Department of the Ministry of Justice to clarify the situation and was still waiting for the reply to its written inquiry at the time of this posting. Neither the Public Television of Armenia has reacted to the criticism yet.