The State Protection Service (SPS), an agency providing bodyguards to Armenia’s top state officials, deployed scores of its uniformed officers on Monday at the start of the inaugural session of the new National Assembly elected in June.
They set up checkpoints and placed metal detectors at the entrances to the main parliament auditorium. They also made sure that parliamentary correspondents can no longer interview deputies coming out of the chamber or approach the offices of lawmakers representing the ruling Civil Contract party.
Lilian Galstian, a photojournalist with Panorama.am, photographed on Wednesday some of those SPS officers as they clustered around one place. A senior parliament staffer informed Galstian’s news service the next day that she has been banned from entering the building until this fall for violating new rules for press coverage of parliament sessions.
It emerged that speaker Alen Simonian introduced the hitherto unknown rules immediately after being elected by the parliament’s pro-government majority on Monday. They bar journalists from photographing, filming or recording the security personnel.
“I have taken pictures at the National Assembly for more than ten years and never had such a problem,” Galstian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Friday. “I have always photographed what I have seen. When you see extraordinary scenes you must definitely photograph them.”
Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information deplored the new rules, saying that the parliament’s leadership should have informed media outlets and even consulted with them beforehand.
“They were imposed and enforced on the same day,” she said. “How could journalists have been aware of the new rules and acted accordingly?”
Doydoyan’s organization was among a dozen media associations that issued on Thursday a joint statement strongly condemning the ban and demanding the restoration of Galstian’s accreditation.
They also reiterated their strong condemnation of the “unfounded restrictions” on journalists’ freedom of movement inside the parliament building. They said the restrictions are part of recent months’ “torrent” of government actions which they believe threaten the freedom of speech in the country.
Opposition lawmakers and Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, have also criticized the restrictions and the resulting scrapping of the photojournalist’s accreditation.
But Karen Andreasian, one of Tatoyan’s predecessors appointed as justice minister earlier this week, sought to justify the measures.
“We need to understand that journalism and freedom of speech are not absolute values, and if security bodies found some security risks we must respect that,” he told reporters.
Andreasian noted in that regard that an armed group that launched a deadly attack on the Armenian parliament in October 1999 was led by a former journalist, Nairi Hunanian.
Hunanian, who is serving a life sentence in a Yerevan jail, had stopped working as a journalist years before the attack that left then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other officials dead.