Opposition leader Nikol Pashinian and hundreds of his supporters seized the offices of Armenia’s Public Radio and occupied them for about an hour on Saturday on the second day of their anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan.
The protesters unexpectedly burst into the radio building as they marched through the city center to condemn former President Serzh Sarkisian’s plans to extend his rule.
Two police officers guarding the building pulled their guns in an attempt to stop its seizure. But they did not fire gunshots and were swiftly pushed aside by the crowd, which broke another entrance door and seized key radio studios moments later.
Pashinian attributed the extraordinary action to what he described as the failure of Armenian state television and radio to properly cover his anti-Sarkisian campaign launched on Friday. He called this and other broadcasters mouthpieces of government propaganda.
“We are protesting against the fact that Armenia’s broadcasters have imposed an information blockade on our campaign and recent months’ political and civic consolidation against Serzh Sarkisian,” he told reporters inside one of the seized studios.
Pashinian also apologized to the police officers and Public Radio staff for the “inconvenience.” “But with this action we are fighting against a much greater inconvenience,” he said.
“Please leave the building. You can continue your action outside it,” one of the police guards told Pashinian.
The opposition leader refused to do that before telephoning Public Radio’s chief executive, Mark Grigorian, to demand that he be allowed to immediately go live on air and appeal to Armenians. He insisted on his demand when a senior radio executive, Lika Tumanian, arrived at the scene.
“Why did you smash the door? Has this institution ever deprived you of free speech?” she told Pashinian.
Tumanian went on to express readiness to invite to Pashinian to a live talk show that would be aired three hours later.
“I have come here not to give an interview but to appeal to people,” responded the oppositionist. Tumanian rejected the demand, saying that the state-run broadcaster cannot interrupt its programs.
Shortly afterwards, electricity supply to the building was cut off. Public Radio broadcasts appeared to have also been disrupted.
Pashinian told his supporters to leave the building about one hour after the intrusion. Public Radio broadcasts resumed about 30 minutes later.
The Armenian police condemned Pashinian’s actions and threatened to launch criminal proceedings in a statement issued shortly after the radio headquarters was vacated. The statement also urged him and his supporters to refrain from further “illegal conduct.”