On February 23, a group of people participating in an opposition Homeland Salvation Movement march demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attacked RFE/RL Armenian Service journalist Artak Khulian and cameraman Karen Chilingarian, kicking them and using abusive language against them.
In recent months RFE/RL’s Armenian Service has periodically become the target of attacks during opposition rallies, and on the night of the riots on November 10 that followed the signing of a Russian-brokered trilateral statement putting an end to six weeks of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, several dozen people, including members of the nationalist ARF Dashnaktsutyun party, attacked the office of RFE/RL’s Armenian Service in Yerevan.
Earlier on February 23, a cameraman of Sputnik Armenia was injured during a police operation. Other media have also been attacked during this period.
Human rights activist Nina Karapetiants believes the attacks may have more serious consequences. “This is very alarming. This violence may lead to much more serious consequences,” she said.
Karapetiants said she does not understand the logic of the attack on the RFE/RL Armenian Service crew, as the journalists were covering the opposition protest live, therefore, the purpose of the actions remained unclear to her.
“Citizens mostly do not have enough information to come to such a conclusion [for attacking]. The [hate speech] generation that comes from the podium, from the so-called opposition, the rhetoric, the attitude, including a personified attitude towards individuals, structures, news sites, could not but lead to this. But there is another aspect to this. Authorities also allow such unacceptable aggressive manifestations towards journalists of websites, even if many do not like them [journalists, websites] and even if for many they are unacceptable,” Karapetiants said.
Zhanna Aleksanian, the head of the Journalists for Human Rights NGO, reminded that in 2016 during the seizure of a police compound in Yerevan by a fringe opposition group, the police used force against journalists, as a result of which many were injured; a criminal case was opened then, but after the 2018 'velvet revolution' the case was closed. Aleksanian said that if the current government treats such cases so easily, why, in this case, all this should not continue.
“It is accepted in Armenia: violence is not punishable, and this government treats it with ease. Now every day we hear calls for violence, we hear about cases of violence. And it is clear that journalists and human rights activists also become targets, and there is no reaction from the authorities,” Aleksanian said.
Aleksanian said she believes that if those who attacked the office of RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on November 10 had been punished, the February 23 incident would not have happened. “In general, the prosecutor’s office has its own, personal approaches when it comes to opening a case, this is an arbitrary approach… This is the reason why this violence continues,” the human rights activist said.
Head of the Freedom of Information Center Shushan Doydoyan also stressed that no one in Armenia has ever been duly brought to account for violence against journalists.
“For 10 years we were proudly saying that it is good that journalists are no longer harassed in the streets and that disputes have moved to courts where disgruntled citizens can sue journalists and try to solve their problems with media or journalists using the legal mechanism. Now, unfortunately, it seems that everything is moving back to the streets again, which can have a very negative impact on the status of press freedom in Armenia as a whole,” Doydoyan said.
Doydoyan also considers the accusations of politicians against journalists to be problematic, for example, the allegations that journalists are bribe-takers and write articles only by order.
Responding to a question about violence against RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, Vazgen Manukian, a candidate for prime minister from the opposition Homeland Salvation Movement, said on February 24 that he is against violence against journalists, but stressed that he does not believe that the attack against RFE/RL’s crew was for no reason.
“I do not accept any violence against a journalist, regardless of whether I like this journalist or the company or not,” said Manukian.
The attack on the RFE/RL Armenian Service crew was also condemned by a dozen journalistic organizations in Armenia. They demanded that the police exclude any obstruction to the work of journalists, and demanded that political groups organizing protests send a clear message to their supporters and followers about the inadmissibility of aggression and intolerance towards the media.
The attack against RFE/RL’s Armenian Service was also condemned by the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, which called for a transparent and independent investigation of the case.
The Office of Armenia’s Prosecutor-General told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that it was probing the February 23 attack on the RFE/RL Armenian Service reporter and cameraman.