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Liana Sayadyan

Armenia’s Constitutional Referendum: 12 Incidents of Reporter Obstruction and Only 2 Criminal Cases

Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) is currently examining two criminal cases related to the December 6, 2015 constitutional change referendum based on charges that violence was used against reporters covering the process or they were hindered in doing so.

One case involves Azatutyun Radio (azatytyun.am) reporter Anoush Mkrtchyan and cameraman Garik Azibegyan. The reporter says that she was hindered, on two occasions, from carrying out her professional duties at a Yerevan location (56 Komitas Street) next to a campaign headquarters of those in favor of passage of the referendum. The SIS launched one criminal case for both reported incidents.

In one of the two incidents, a person identified as Siroush Hovhannisyan threatened the reporter, demanding that she leave and not photograph anything. Hovhannisyan is said to have spat on the reporter.

In the criminal case, in which Mkrtchyan and Azibegyan were specified as the ‘injured’ party, Siroush Hovhannisyan has been charged with Article 149 Part 2, Point 3) of Armenia’s Criminal Code: Hindrance to implementation of the right to elect, to the work of election commissions or to the implementation of the authority of the person participating in elections accompanied with violence or threats to use violence.

Those found guilty can be sentenced to a maximum of five years imprisonment.

The SIS has yet to reveal the identity of the individual in the second incident that prevented the reporter from working, despite the fact that the person’s face clearly shows in the video).

The other case involves hetq.am reporters Diana Ghazaryan and Nora Ananyan (recognized as the injured party), who were covering referendum voting at the 5/28 polling station. (Ananyan was photographing the balloting) A man named Artour Khourshudyan hindered the two reporters from carrying out their work and has been charged with Article 149, Part 1, of Armenia’s Criminal Code: Hindrance to the free implementation of the citizen’s right to elect or to referendum, or hindrance to the work of the election or referendum commission, as well as, hindrance to the implementation of the authorities of the election or referendum commission or initiative group, candidate or his proxy, observers, mass media representatives, the authorized person of the party (or association of parties).

If found guilty, Khourshudyan faces punishment with a fine in the amount of 200 to 400 minimal salaries, or arrest for up to 1 month.

The injured parties in these two cases haven’t filed any material demands. The preliminary examination of both continues. It’s hard to predict when the examinations will end given that the SIS has yet to complete its investigation of the use of violence by police against reporters who were covering #Electric Yerevan demonstrations on July 23, 2015 protesting a rise in electricity rates. Reporters were manhandled when cops moved in to disperse protesting citizens on Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue.

Amazingly, a criminal case hasn’t been launched regarding another incident involving aspects of violence. On the day of the referendum, two individuals hindered the activities of Armenia Now photo-journalist Nazik Armenakyan at the 11/13 polling station in Yerevan’s Shengavit district. They attempted to seize the reporter’s camera as she tried to record them attempting multiple voting. (The reporter had spotted them vote at another polling station earlier).  The two young guys jostled her and didn’t allow her to photograph them. The reporter never filed a report with the police given that she had no photo of the culprits and believed that the police wouldn’t be able to track them down without it.   Nevertheless, an alert of the incident was sounded by organizations both covering the referendum election as serving as observers. There’s justification for the reporter being dubious. There are numerous cases where reporters have photographed those committing violence against them but the police, nonetheless, haven’t been able to find the culprits. The incident involving Anoush Mkrtchyan is a recent example.

Another norm came to light during the December 2015 referendum vote. Even when the identity of those committing violence is known, law enforcement officials have no compulsion or inclination to bring the culprits to justice, give that the law breakers are linked to the regime.

On December 6, 2015 (Referendum Day), while covering the vote at the 10/20 polling station, a Republican Party proxy manhandled iLur.am reporter Rafayel Afrikyan, ripped his clothes and grabbed his video camera.

Afrikyan reported the incident to the Prosecutor’s Office and a criminal case was launched. The identity of the proxy was known – Davit Simonyan. But the case was dropped because the Investigative Committee argued there was no corpus delicti (Latin: "body of the crime").

In an interview with Azatutyun Radio, Afrikyan said he saw no meaning in appealing since he knew what the outcome would be. “If they see the need, they can drop any case,” said Afrikyan.

Afrikyan told Hetq that he didn’t have an attorney and that he let the deadline for appealing pass. He said that he only appeared twice to give testimony during the examination stage of the case. He also went once to see what was going on with the findings about his broken video camera. A face to face meeting with the person who broke it was never organized.

Losses suffered by the reporter were pegged at 28,000 AMD. Afrikyan never filed a court suit to get the compensation.

Of interest is the fact that none of the above criminal cases were launched according to Article 164 of Armenia’s Criminal Code: Hindering the legal professional activities of a journalist.

Sanctions for this article of the criminal code are quite strict. In addition, if serious bodily harm is done, the punishment meted out can be more severe. This isn’t the case with Criminal Code Articles 149, 185 or 186.

According to data published by Armenia’s Judicial Department, only one criminal case based on Article 164 has been launched since 2008.

“This is a general trend,” says attorney Ara Ghazaryan (photo), founder of the Supremacy of the Law NGO.

In total, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression registered 12 incidents on December 6, 2015 (Referendum Day) when members of the press were hindered from carrying out their duties.

Only three made it to the investigation stage – two by the SIS and one by the Investigative Committee. The latter has since been dropped. Here is the list of journalists whose professional activities as journalists covering the important vote were obstructed.

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