Armenia: Journalists Defiant After New Attacks

Recent attacks on journalists underline media’s struggle to report freely on politics and business.

Armenia: Journalists Defiant After New Attacks

Recent attacks on journalists underline media’s struggle to report freely on politics and business.

Friday, 22 May, 2009
Armenian rights activists fear two attacks on prominent journalists in the last three weeks could be a sign of new attempts to restrict freedom of information in their country.



Argishti Kivirian, editor-in-chief of the news agencies Armenia Today and Bagin.info, was attacked in the stairwell of his house on April 30, only just managing to force his assailants’ gun into the air before three shots were fired.



Just a week later, Nver Mnatsakanian, a political commentator from the Shant television channel, was also beaten as he walked into the block of flats were he lived.



These two high-profile attacks are added to a list of 18 other assaults on journalists compiled last year by human rights activists, which paint a picture of a country where the press struggles to report freely on politics and business.



“If the criminals are punished on time then maybe we can avoid this atmosphere of impunity, which we have at the moment. There are cases which are so close to being solved, and then unexpectedly they reach a dead end,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, the head of the Armenian Helsinki Commission.



The attack on Kivirian was clearly well-planned, according to evidence from his wife Lusine Sahakian, a lawyer who has worked defending opposition figures.



“It was five o’clock in the morning, when I heard a noise coming from the ground floor. We opened the day and ran down by the stairs, shouting his name ‘Argishti, Argishti’. I knew that he had been threatened,” she said. As she reached the first floor, she said she heard three shots.



“My husband says that he heard the noise of steps coming closer, and then one of the attackers said ‘kill him’. Argishti managed to push the pistol upwards, and it fired into the air.”



Kivirian’s two news agencies have no relation to the authorities, and they have recently been very active in covering problems in southern Georgia, which has a large Armenian minority that can cause friction between the two neighbouring countries. The news agencies promised that the attack would not halt their work.



“We can assure you that Armenia Today and Bagun.info will continue to uncover serious themes and will not stop raising current problems. Attempts to make us be quiet are pointless,” the agencies said in a joint statement.



Just a week later, on May 7, unknown men attacked Mnatsakanian. Such an assault, on a well-known figure in the country, shocked many Armenians. Mnatsakanian, who has no connection to the opposition, himself struggled to give an explanation for what had happened.



“I can say nothing. You could connect it to anything in our activities. I have never had and do not have any connection to business or to anything,” he told Radio Liberty.



In a news conference the next day, Colonel Hovhannes Tamanian, of the Armenian police, said all steps would be taken to solve the two crimes. “Crimes against journalists defame the great work that we do elsewhere. We will do all that we can to solve these crimes. I ask you to trust me and to believe that we will take all steps to prevent such things happening again,” he said.



His criticism of the attacks was repeated by Armenian prime minister Tigran Sargsian who strongly condemned such violence on May 13.



“And sadly, violence is not only used against journalists. These circumstances can create serious danger. Therefore, we are organising discussions about possible additional measures and reforms, which could deal with this negative tendency,” he said.



Tamanian’s figures for assaults on journalists are very different to those published by rights activists. He said there have been only 17 attacks since 1992, and of these three had been solved. But activists say even this minute figure is exaggerated.



One of the cases listed as solved was the attack last year on Edik Baghdasarian, the chairman of the Investigative Journalists Organisation, and editor-in-chief of the website hetq.am.



He was badly beaten on November 17, 2008, when three unknown men attacked him near his office without warning or explanation. He resisted them until he was smashed over the head with a rock. His attackers took an expensive television camera, and he only managed to gain help when he crawled to a nearby building.



“If Tamanian thinks that my case is solved, then he either understands nothing of jurisprudence, or has absolutely no conception of it. They arrested some person, who refuses to give evidence, and is probably being quiet by orders coming from above. Anyway, he is quiet, and he has a perfect right to this. That makes it a lot easier to hide the name of the person who ordered the attack,” said Baghdasarian.



And human rights groups accuse the authorities of taking the assault on Kivirian with a similar lack of seriousness. Prosecutors initially viewed it as a minor assault, and only upgraded it to a probe into attempted murder after three weeks.



Gagik Shamshian, a photographer who reached the scene of the attack just half an hour after it happened, has a series of photographs that clearly show the brass cartridge cases expelled by the pistol used in the assault.



Kivirian’s wife is also baffled by how the police, who must have seen the cartridge cases, took so long to classify the case as attempted murder.



“What happened to the cartridges from the bullets? How could they say that they heard no shots, and that the victim did not see a pistol himself,” she asked.



The contradictions between the official accounts and that of the victims in these attacks have concerned international observers. Ambassador Sergey Kapinos, the head of the office of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, was harsh in his criticism.



“The recent repeated cases of violent assault against media professionals have marred the current media freedom situation in Armenia,” he said.



“The lack of results in cases of violence against journalists creates an atmosphere of impunity for the perpetrators and can provoke other cases of violence against media workers.”



In the meantime, Kivirian and his wife are planning to put in a request for the right to carry a gun.



“We live in a country in which we cannot feel ourselves protected, therefore we are forced to count only on self-defence. Let’s see if in this country only oligarchs and criminals are allowed to carry weapons, and whether decent people are also given this right,” said Sahakian.



Gayane Mkrtchian is a journalist with Armenianow.com.
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