Summers are scorching hot in Armenia. For the last four years it is not only the the heat that has clung to the city, as much as street protests and mass demonstrations. In 2013 Armenians took the street against price hikes for public transport, while in 2014 the pension reform angered thousands of young and elderly alike. In 2015 a sharp jump in electricity tariffs sparked the Electric Yerevan movement which gripped the city centre for days. Then, come July 2016, there was little surprise when people flooded the streets of the capital- again. For the first time though, there were no economic demands, but rather popular support to an armed group who was barricaded in a police station.
On July 17, armed men from the opposition group Sasna Tsrer, aka the Daredevils of Sassoun - after the title of a famous Armenian epic novel - broke into and occupied a police station in Sari Tagh, a neighbourhood in Yerevan’s Erebuni district. The group demanded political concessions including the release of its leader Zhirayr Sefilyan, a Lebanese-born Armenian hailed as a hero from the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, who was arrested a month earlier. Surprisingly, the group received public support which grew into crowded street demonstrations across the capital. The group surrendered on July 31.
The representatives of the Armenian media believe that the attacks on journalists in 2016 are a consequence of the impunity of crimes of the last year. The two-week stand-off received substantial media coverage, but journalists found themselves in the line of fire, as more than 20 media representatives were injured, arrested, or harassed when the government dispersed demonstrators on July 29.
Journalist Mariam Grigoryan and her cameraman colleague David Harutyunyan suffered shrapnel wounds while covering the clashes for the news website 1in.am. Harutyunyan was also attacked by unknown persons in civilian clothes who beat him and smashed his video camera.
They maintain that the police deliberately chose them as targets.
"I was approached by a man in civilian clothes who spoke to the deputy chief of police. He said about the upcoming operation and asked to move us away. The first three stun grenades were thrown in the direction of the protesters, and the following headed towards a group of journalists," Grigoryan recalls.
“We had nowhere to flee to avoid them,” adds Robert Ananyan who works at online TV A1+. “They blew things everywhere.”
Hit by the grenades and wounded, Ananyan continued to live stream from Sari Tagh which looked like a battlefield. He was then rescued and hospitalized for a week.
Reporters tried to get out, jumping on a car with regular citizens.
"Then the police stopped us. We introduced ourselves, presented our press cards, but we were nevertheless forced out, threatened and beat with batons," continues Ananyan.
Most attacks against journalists were committed by persons in civilian clothes. Photos taken on site and then posted on social media revealed their connection to high-ranking Armenian security officials or politicians.
"They may for example provide security for high-ranking officials. They are sent to demonstrations disguised as protesters and, once there, they trigger the provocations leading to direct clashes. If journalists manage to film their faces, they become a target. Equipment is destroyed and journalists are physically attacked. So, these men try to destroy the equipment," explains Tehmina Yenokyan, a journalist of news website Lragir.am.
Yenokyan posted on her Facebook profile photos clearly portraying two members of the security service as instigators in the crowd - Gago Zohrabyan and a man known as Artashes, both directly under the command of the police chief, Vladimir Gasparyan. Soon, she started receiving threats from an unknown user named Paul Sassounian.
Lragir.am journalist Tehmine Yenoqyan
When she reported the online threats, the police stated that Zohrabyan was instructed to be on site on July 29 by the head of the police and was himself a victim of the turmoil.“So there I was, reporting threats and the police thus does nothing,” she complaints.
Suren Deheryan, who heads the NGO "Journalists for the Future," maintains that the events of last summer will affect Armenia’s international ranking for freedom of speech and human rights.
"The use of force against peaceful protesters and the media, resulting in dozens of hospitalized and arrested, certainly will be reflected in the various reports of international organizations,” says Deheryan.
The reaction didn't come late as condemnation on the attacks against journalists came from Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic, among others.
On September 13, Deputy Attorney General Arthur Davtyan promised that the Prosecutor General's Office of Armenia will take steps to punish the perpetrators of organized aggression against journalists. As of early October, two criminal cases are being investigated - one for "organizing mass disorder" and the other for "obstructing journalists’ work." In the latter case charges were brought against seven citizens.
The Committee to protect Freedom of Expression provides legal assistance to journalists who were attacked and are not in a position to hire lawyers. According to the chairman for the Committee to protect Freedom of Expression Ashot Melikyan, it is of utmost importance for journalists to stand up to defend their rights in order to prevent such events from happening. However so far, only five journalists have decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
"It can be very disheartening. You spend time and energy, exhaust all possibilities within the country, and when the moment comes to move forward and appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, suddenly the journalist gives up the fight,” notes Melikyan.
Not Yenokyan. The 29-year-old decided to go ahead.
"I continue to assert my rights in the courts; I will go through the three court cases against the police as a witness and a victim.”
Police officers pushed Grigoryan and Harutyunyan to testify, threatening them with criminal liability but they refused as, “we do not trust the law enforcement system in Armenia as a whole,” Grigoryan says.
Ananyan too, is involved as a witness and victim in two cases. He is working on a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for obstructing journalistic work and against Armenian Police.
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