Armenia: Outrage at Newspaper Editor's Arrest

Media rights groups say criminal charges against Arman Babajanian are designed to neutralise a critical voice.

Armenia: Outrage at Newspaper Editor's Arrest

Media rights groups say criminal charges against Arman Babajanian are designed to neutralise a critical voice.

Friday, 7 July, 2006
Journalists and media activists in Armenia are lining up in support of newspaper editor Arman Babajanian, saying the criminal charge for which he was arrested this week has only been filed because of his paper’s criticism of the authorities.



Babajanian was detained at the offices of his Zhamanak-Yerevan paper on June 26, and charged with forging documents four years ago to allow him to escape army conscription. He is said to have made up a certificate that fictitiously showed he had two children - a circumstance which automatically results in exemption from military service. Forgery carries a punishment of one to five years in prison.



An official report states that Babajanian made a confession in the presence of a lawyer.



Babajanian was refused bail when he appeared in court on June 28, and he is likely to spend the next two months in prison pending trial. His lawyer Ruben Grigorian said the court was wrong not to have taken his position and his “frank confession” into account in considering the bail request.



The lawyer now plans to appeal the refusal of bail. “If the court upholds the decision, this will suggest there’s a political motive behind what has happened,” he said.



Babajanian’s colleagues on the paper and in other media have spoken out in his support, accusing the authorities of prosecuting him because of his work on Zhamanak-Yerevan.



“I insist that even if there’s some offence, the underlying cause is the newspaper,” said the paper’s deputy editor Liza Chagharian.



The newspaper only started publishing in Armenia on May 12 with a print-run of 1,500, which although small is not unusual in this country. But it has been going for four years, and continues to be printed in the United States in Armenian and Russian with a circulation of 9,000. Over that period, Zhamanak-Yerevan has carried many critical articles about the government, although it has also been hard on the opposition at times.



“The authorities dislike Zhamanak Yerevan, which is why orders were issued to destroy it,” Avetiq Ishkhanian, the chairman of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, told IWPR. “The law enforcement bodies took on the task of devising a way to carry these orders out.”



The National Press Club released a statement describing Babajanian’s arrest as a breach of the constitutional right to freedom of speech, and an attempt to force the media into a strait-jacket ahead of elections.



The Yerevan Press Club and the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech wrote to the prosecutor general claiming that initial questioning of Babajanian had been conducted improperly.



On June 27, a group of journalists, human rights campaigners and opposition supporters held a rally outside the prosecution service’s headquarters in Yerevan.



One of the participants, journalist Mesrop Harutiunian said dragging a man off to the prosecutor’s office without giving him advance notice or informing him of his rights was how the law worked in a police state. “An army sergeant style of rule is being established in Armenia,” he said.



Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian believes Babajanian’s detention is part of a wider campaign to bring the independent media to heel.



“I don’t know whether the authorities will succeed to do this, but I’m sure they won’t,” he said. “But if they do succeed, they may turn their hand to other newspapers, too.”



A recent report by the international media watchdog Freedom House rates the press in Armenia as “not free”.



The media have repeatedly come under pressure in recent years. The independent TV-channel А1+ was stripped of its license in 2002 and has failed to win back its broadcasting rights ever since. This year it was evicted from its premises.



There have also been a number of physical attacks on journalists, including assaults last year on Anna Israelian of the Aravot newspaper, Naira Mamikonian of Haikakan Zhamanak, and Diana Markosian, the author of this article.



Armenia’s new human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, has so far avoided any comment on the possible political ramifications of the Babajanian case. “We will look at his crime [sic] to see whether the draft evasion can be proved as a legal fact or not,” he said. “Only then will we be able to draw conclusions.”



Diana Markosian is a journalist with the А1+ television company.
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