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Liana Sayadyan

Violence against journalists

In the past few years, when the subject of freedom of speech in Armenia has been discussed, it's with the idea that mass violence against journalists is a thing of the past, and that and now, the fight against the press is conducted, so to speak, within the framework of legislation. But the attacks on journalists covering the rally organized by the Artashes Geghamyan's National Unity Party on April 5, 2004 reveals that nothing has changed, and that journalists performing their professional duty are as unprotected as they were nine or ten years ago.

As early as the morning of April 5 th , hours before the rally, police officers tried to prevent Haykakan Zhamanak reporter Haik Gevorgyan from taking pictures of the roadblock on the Arshtarak-Yerevan highway. "At about noon we went to take some pictures of how the police were blocking the Ashtarak highway," Gevorgyan explains. "There were some 20-25 policemen. As we were taking pictures, one of the policemen approached us and tried to grab our camera. And of course we-another reporter from the newspaper and I-struggled with him. The policemen was surprised and said he would arrest us. We were taken to the Ashtarak police station, where we spoke to Officer Karapetyan. We explained the provisions of the Armenian Constitution, and they kept us there for about one hour. We chatted very calmly, and they set us free very calmly. It was just unfortunate that we were kept there for an hour, since we were in a hurry." Perhaps Gevorgyan wouldn't have been in such a hurry if he'd known he was later to lose his camera, so important to the newspaper, at the rally.

Geghamyan's rally featured the egg-throwing which had been previously tried out at a rally in Gyumri. "I was responsible for reporting on the rally," recalls Anna Israelyan, a reporter for Aravot. "During Artashes Geghamyan's speech at about 4 p.m. , somebody started throwing eggs from the side of Cinema Nairi. At first, the rumor was that it was from inside the theatre, and Geghamyan himself said that the building belonged to the clans, and they were doing it on purpose so that the windows would get broken and they could say that there had been disorder. But a guy from one of the windows of the Nairi pointed out that the eggs were coming from somewhere else outside the theatre. And they didn't even leave. They kept it up, and when the demonstrators got upset and tried to find out why they were doing it, they started setting off firecrackers, too. I went up with a couple of journalists-a reporter from Arminfo and others-to see who these people-who the Yerevan chief of police later characterized as "people expressing opposing views"-were. As has been described many times, those people with opposing views were young men with shaved heads and very thick necks, wearing dark sunglasses and athletic or leather jackets. They responded to all attempts to calm them down very rudely, to put it mildly. They even were cursing and pushing elderly women. The journalists began to film all this. When they saw that the cameras had caught them, they moved toward the Matenadaran. There, this group of two dozen people broke up into smaller groups of two or three, and attacked the journalists. They smashed a video camera against a tree and threw a still camera onto the ground."

Onnik Krikorian, a photojournalist with Hetq-online decribes the scene this way:

"I arrived late to photograph the rally but after venturing into the crowd a few meters in front of where Geghamyan was speaking, people in the crowd started to direct my attention towards a film cameraman filming the gathering from the top of the Nairi Cinema building. A few minutes later, people started talking about eggs being thrown and I assumed from this top window. However, I was told that no, the eggs were being thrown by what the people in the crowd described as police. During this time, a young man directly behind me was getting agitated and others managed to convince him to calm down. After this, I was told that I should go and photograph the people throwing eggs and I made my way to the front door of the Nairi Cinema where I ran into Emil Danielyan from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. There, a group of big men, some with shaved heads, were standing around while some people-ironically, old women-were lecturing them as to what they should or should not be doing. The men left but then a commotion a few meters up grabbed everybody's attention and a protestor grabbed my arm and insisted I go and photograph events. Nearing the scene I saw a woman who I assume was a journalist pick up her video camera that had been smashed on the ground."

The journalists tried to film the ensuing argument between protestors and egg-throwers, but met with resistance. The "huge" men, who most of the journalists said looked like bodyguards, smashed the video cameras of three TV companies - Kentron, Hay-TV, and Public Television-and the still cameras of newspapers Aravot and Haykakan Zhamanak. Threatening to smash his camera as well, they seized a videotape from Shant TV cameraman Edward Petrosyan, whose cell phone was broken in the fracas.

According to reporter Haik Gevorgyan, "When the tumult near Cinema Nairi began I was on the other side. While I was pushing my way through the crowd, the egg-throwing group had already moved toward the Matenadaran. I saw that the cameras of Haylur (the Public Television news program) and, I think, Kentron TV were broken. I got there just at the moment when they were smashing a small digital camera onto the ground. I took a picture of the destruction, and then I photographed their faces. They looked incredibly alike - guys with very thick necks, shaved heads, heavy-set. I was holding the camera over my head and taking pictures when they grabbed onto the camera. At that moment they were distracted by someone else, I didn't see who. Two of them kept pulling my camera but since the cord was wrapped around my wrist it was hard to take it. Then the camera just dissolved before my eyes - there were so many hands hanging onto it that the camera fell to pieces. I tried to pick the chip up from the ground but they saw me looking for the part and collected all the pieces. Anna from Aravot was standing next to me and I thought maybe later I would need evidence and told her to take a picture of the broken camera. She took the picture and they began pushing and shoving her and they smashed her camera to the ground, too. People around us were cursing, but they were just doing their job." In addition to breaking the video and still cameras the men, evidently trying to incite disorder, knocked Israelyan down.

Onnik Krikorian, a British citizen, continues: "Then, the course of events are not so clear to me anymore. However, I think it was at this point when I saw one of the men who had been standing outside Nairi hit the man who was leading me by the arm and turn to me. I think I remember speaking some English, as although I had a press card around my neck I wanted to make sure people understood I was a foreign journalist. However, that had little effect and I was hit in the face by this man and fell to the floor, more concerned with my cameras than anything else. In fact, as they helped me up off the ground, some people in the crowd warned me to hide my cameras as these thugs were smashing them."

Anna Israelyan explains, "I was just trying to take the picture of the scattered pieces of Haik's camera (I had photographed their faces earlier) when one of these thugs attacked me, he cursed me rudely and said, 'Didn't we tell you not to take pictures?' He hit me in the chest and I fell on the ground. The strangest thing for me was that he then gave me back my camera. Some people noted that they had on earphones, perhaps they were receiving orders. Maybe some other people were supervising their actions, they recognized me and told them to give my camera back, I don't know. Because they didn't allow Hayk to even take a piece of his camera, but they returned my camera, although with a broken lens," she points out.

The attack on the journalists took place with the connivance of the police.

"Again, all a little vague but a few meters away a policeman was standing and I approached him asking him why he wasn't intervening and shouldn't he be upholding the law when a fight including violence towards a journalist was going on in his proximity and to his full knowledge," says Onnik Grigoryan. "The policeman just walked away. Then again, all a little vague but I remember going up to another policeman, identifying myself as a British journalist and asking him to uphold the law. He told me to make a complaint to the British Embassy. Ten or fifteen minutes later after moving to the other end of the crowd-and I have to be honest, thinking that I would be safer if I was away from these guys who obviously were people that knew the police would not touch them."

Haykakan Zhamanak reporter Hayk Gevorgyan also confirms that the policemen purposefully did nothing to stop the violence. "These guys were very self-confident. There were policemen dressed in civilian clothes on both sides and not of low rank (I learned that later, because some people recognized them - that one is the chief of the investigation department, and so on). Six or seven meters away, there were policemen in uniform, who did nothing to differentiate themselves from the perpetrators, standing calmly by. I went up to them to tell them what had happened and ask who I should get my camera back from, and they said: 'Really? Where did such a thing happen?'"

Nerses Nazaryan, the chief of the Yerevan Police Department, commented on what the journalists describe as police inaction in a press conference on April 6 th : "The police were instructed to intervene only in extreme cases during rallies." This was repeated to the letter by President Robert Kocharyan in an interview with Public Television on April 8 th . Thus, we are given to understand that neither the chief of police nor the president of Armenia considers violence against journalists an "extreme case". Rather, as Police Chief Nazaryan stated, "According to our information, during the rally, which was not sanctioned, some isolated instances of arguments and collisions between citizens holding opposing views took place, which is unavoidable in such circumstances. Reporters appealed orally to police officers present at the rally saying that during that argument their cameras had been damaged. I have instructed the police department of the Kentron district to prepare materials about the incident, specifying the circumstances and the participants."

The police, incidentally, are in no hurry to find the perpetrators of the attacks. On April 6th , the chief of the police department of the Kentron district, Arshak Karapetyan, told the Azg daily, "One does not to institute proceedings against somebody when during public confusion somebody, perhaps accidentally, jostled a cameraman and the camera fell and broke. So far no one has appealed to us. If they do we will decide, and will look into this." We should note that according to the Law on Criminal Proceedings of Armenia, reports in the media may constitute grounds for instituting a criminal case; there is no need for the journalists to appeal in writing to the police or to the prosecutor's office. And the day the events occurred, the media, Kentron TV, in particular, aired footage showing one of the egg-throwers hitting the station's cameraman, taking his camera and smashing it against a tree. After showing the footage, the cameraman announced on the air that this was his official appeal to law enforcement agencies to find the perpetrators of the attack. Similar footage appeared on Public Television. "We aired our report and consider it to be an official appeal. We are not planning to submit an appeal in writing too," says Armen Arzumanyan, the station's executive director. The newspapers Haykakan Zhamanak and Aravot issued statements regarding the event as well.

On April 8th the Republican Police launched an investigation into the disorder that took place during the rally, but not directed against the individuals who committed the acts of violence against journalists. "The incident took place on monday, but the case wasn't instituted until thursday. It was only after international organizations intervened that the police reacted to the incident and instituded proceedings, and we were recognized as victims. And now they say that it was an act of hooliganism and nothing is said about compensation," Anna Israelyan explains.

"I don't know what to expect, they'll arrest sombody and say that he is a Geghamyan supporter... Perhaps there will be a farce, or some compensation for the equipment. I don't know, but the most realistic scenario is that nothing will happen. If there is an investigation it will not be unbiased or impartial for sure," Haik Gevorgyan believes. In fact, it should be very easy for the police to find the perpetrators, since Kentron TV handed over the videotape of the actual event to the police, Aravot has twice published the photograph of the person who hit reporter Anna Israelyan and broke her camera, and Haik Gevorgyan says he is sure he will recognize the man "...who was standing right in front of me trying to take my camera. I remember his face very well."

It is hard to say exactly why the journalists were attacked. "It seems to me that these people got out of control as far as the journalists were concerned. They were instructed to throw eggs and instigate a turmoil, so people would attack and they would arrest them. Probably they missed a detail - that journalists might take their picture. Perhaps then the unplanned actions took place," Haik Gevorgyan conjectures.

"It is not clear to me why all this happened during the rally orginized by National Unity and was directed against journalists," says Hakob Avetikyan, the editor-in-chief of Azg. "I don't know whether it was planned in advance against journalists, or if it was a provocation against Haylur - if so, why they were so unprofessional and why did they break other cameras as well? Or perhaps it was planned by the government to create an uproar, I don't know. We suspected that the rally organazers would be arrested. But we didn't foresee that everything would be directed against journalists... We couldn't know. One thing is clear, the most vulnerable layer is journalists. The journalists were performing their professional duty, and all of a sudden the journalists' tools are taken away. It is very disturbing, and this is not the first time. I blame this first of all on journalists and media editors, including myself. We haven't established ourselves as a body. Irrespective of our individual political views, irrespective of our sponsors, we can agree on one subject and protect the work of the journalist. We have created a body called the Journalists' Association; we should make it more active to defend our interests."

Hakob Avetikyan is right to put the blame on journalists themselves. The violence against them is a consequence of the fact that they don't enjoy the respect of society, the goverment, or the opposition as "apostles" called upon to provide society with objective information. The commentaries by the TV companies on April 5th, and the next day's publications by some, particularly government-controlled or pro-government, newspapers is depressing food for thought. You would have thought that what happened to the reporters would have occupied the front pages, and led TV news reports. But Public Television, H2, Ar, and Armenia TV stations opened their news programs with president's meetings and other official information. Moreover, rather than reporting on the incident, these TV stations played policeman, pointing to Geghamyan and his supporters as responsible for the violence.

A similar attitude was displayed by the newspaper Hayastani Hanrapetutiun - it gave the incident casual mention in its report on the rally. The fact that these media outlets didn't condemn the violence and didn't offer support for their collegues is worse than the inaction of the police. Aram Safaryan, deputy director of the H2 TV station, told us that there was no need for such support, and that in his opinion the journalistic community is more than united. Tigran Farmanyan, the editor-in-chief of Hayastani Hanrapetutiun told us: "A terrible thing happened. A person was not allowed to work, he was doing his job but he was not allowed to. I condemn that, but I don't know what to say. If it had been directed against one side, I would know what to say, but it was directed against both sides [he means Haylur]. I cannot draw a clear-cut conclusion, I wasn't present there. Everything has deep roots. A journalist says thousands of disrespectful things about a person - so we give a pretext for retaliation. A journalist has the opportunity to say anything, but everything should be respectful. We bear our part of the guilt. I am sure that they didn't recognize Anna Israelyan. Look, nobody beats journalists from Aravot, but for journalists from Chorrord Ishkhanutiun, it happens a lot. This is retaliation; journalists give occasion for retaliation. They act like journalists act. They have more rights because they are asses. We definately bear part of the guilt. I think that there will be compensation. The most important thing for Europe is the attitude toward journalists. Journalists' rights are a criterion of democracy. I think everyone is interested in compensation."

Nune Sargysyan, chairman of the organization Internews, also stresses the role of the media here. "I think that the journalist victims should unite and perhaps a joint trial would take place. I understand that many questions arise here - how, against whom? As far as I understand, many of the perpetrators are known, and the police did nothing. This is a punishable action. The media should speak up about this. I doubt that they will, but I would like it very much. Not only the NGOs should speak about it and not tolerate it, but also the media should speak up by giving precise information. And they should organize some actions, beginning with legal means - suing them, and ending with some actions of solidarity, intolerance toward such deeds. But why did this happen? I understand that this was planned, but was it directed against the media? This was of course a reflection of a disrespectful attitude toward the media. That is why the media must understand that they should become a force, they should work in accordance with professional, journalistic norms. It is hard, but they should try to work independently."

"I am confident that nobody will be punished, because up to now no person who committed the violence has been arrested," says Edik Baghdasaryan, chairman of the Association of Investigative Journalists. " The law enforcement agencies know very well who these people are. Our organization will do its utmost to make sure that these people are punished and the journalists are compensated. We will conduct our own investigation and will hand over the results to the law enforcement agencies when the deadline set by law expires and they say they cannot find the perpetrators of the crime. At that time we will bring an action against the law enforcement agencies."

Liana Sayadyan, Aghavni Yeghiazaryan
Photos by Onnik Krikoryan

From the editorial board

Pictured in the photographs are the men who beat up the journalists and broke their cameras. They are the bodyguards of well-known oligarchs. Soon we will present their names and addresses in order to facilitate their location by the law enforcement agencies.

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