The recently elected parliament’s speaker, Alen Simonian, ordered a halt to a live televised broadcast of Wednesday’s parliament session as it descended into chaos amid bitter insults traded by pro-government and opposition lawmakers. Simonian also told uniformed security officers to take to the parliament floor and “restore order” there.
Moments later, other officers entered the press gallery overlooking the chamber and ordered journalists present there to stop filming or photographing the dramatic proceedings. Some of those journalists said they were also informed that they are no longer allowed to take pictures of such incidents.
In a joint statement issued later on Wednesday, 11 non-governmental organizations promoting press freedom expressed outrage at Simonian’s and the security personnel’s actions. They said that the pro-government speaker “overstepped his powers” set by the parliamentary statutes.
“The citizens of Armenia have a legal right to know what happens in the parliament and how every deputy behaves,” read the statement.
The state human rights defender, Arman Tatoyan, likewise described the latest orders issued to the parliamentary correspondents as “unacceptable.”
Tatoyan and the press freedom groups also reiterated their criticism of serious restrictions on journalists’ freedom of movement inside the parliament building which Simonian imposed immediately after being elected speaker on August 2.
Reporters accredited to the National Assembly can no longer interview lawmakers coming out of the chamber or enter a section of the building housing the offices of deputies from the ruling Civil Contract party.
Opposition lawmakers added their voice to the condemnations during a parliament session on Thursday.
“Journalists must report what they see, and if you insult and swear at each other on the parliament floor the public must be aware of it,” said Taguhi Tovmasian, a former newspaper editor representing the opposition Pativ Unem bloc.
“There had been many problems [in the past] but pressure on the media is now becoming systematic,” said Gegham Manukian of the opposition Hayastan bloc. “Active restrictions are being imposed on media outlets.”
Manukian, who ran a TV channel before being elected to the current legislature, argued that security personnel have never threatened to evict journalists before.
Simonian rejected the opposition criticism but did not explain his decision to stop the broadcast of Wednesday’s session. He defended the restrictions, saying that they are needed to stop journalists from “chasing deputies in the corridors” and intruding their offices.
The speaker, who is a close associate of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, also a former journalist, accused reporters of routinely disrespecting Armenian officials and politicians.
“Do not think that you can voice insults at state officials, National Assembly deputies and public figures on social media and other public platforms and then wonder why you are not given interviews,” he said, appealing to them.
The controversial restrictions are enforced by scores of security officers who were deployed inside the government-controlled parliament on the eve of its inaugural session held on August 2.
The officers work for the State Protection Service, an agency that provides bodyguards to Pashinian and other senior state officials. An Armenian photojournalist was stripped of her parliamentary accreditation for taking their pictures last week.
Justice Minister Karen Andreasian defended the enhanced security presence in the Armenian parliament on August 6. He noted in that regard that an armed group that seized the National Assembly in October 1999 was led by a former journalist, Nairi Hunanian.
Critics countered that Hunanian, who is serving a life sentence in a Yerevan jail, had stopped working as a journalist years before the deadly attack.
Tatoyan deplored statements attributing the press coverage restrictions to the need to ward off possible terrorist acts. The ombudsman argued that all accredited correspondents have to walk through metal detectors and undergo other security checks before entering the parliament building.