Armenia: Reporter Pays Price for Independence

Leading Armenian journalist, recently wounded in a grenade attack outside his home, believes he may have been targeted for his willingness to speak out.

Armenia: Reporter Pays Price for Independence

Leading Armenian journalist, recently wounded in a grenade attack outside his home, believes he may have been targeted for his willingness to speak out.

Thursday, 5 December, 2002

On October 22, someone waited for me outside my front door, then followed me through the dark streets at night, and, when they thought the time was right, threw a hand grenade at my feet. Someone may have "contracted" an assassin to do it. I don't know.

I survived thanks to pure luck: the grenade rolled underneath the curb where it exploded the moment I stepped onto the pavement. The curb took the main force of the blast, while I got away with "minor" injuries, such as a splinter in my lung, cuts to my face, head, legs, and arms.

What was it for?

My God, if only I knew! When the grenade was thrown I was on my way to conduct an interview for an article I'd been writing for a few days about the third anniversary of the parliament murders. (See preceding article)

Was I planning dramatic revelations? Before answering this question, one needs to ask another one: is there a powerful force in Armenia interested in preventing such revelations? I have no answer to this question either.

Actually, I had no new horrible facts or theories. And, in general, my article wasn't about the crime per se but about the events of the three years that followed it. Many people have written about this without coming to any harm.

It means they wanted to kill, to eliminate me physically for something else. What exactly?

We can rule out domestic or economic motives. I didn't have a mistress with a jealous husband; I hadn't borrowed large sums of money; I never had a business.

I can't think of any thing that could make someone want to eliminate me, wipe Mark Grigorian off the face of the earth.

Wait, though, there is something. I'm talking about the notorious murder at Café Poplavok in September last year, when one of President Kocharian's guards pushed a man who irreverently greeted the president into the toilet and killed him. I was one of the few to speak out publicly about this shameful incident.

It's been over a year since the murder; the guard was given a suspended sentence - didn't spend a minute in jail - and was then promoted, I think, and, as far as he is concerned, the matter is now over.

Why when I suggest that there may be a link between my criticism of the case and the attempt on my life, do the detectives put their pens away and start talking about my injuries? Why do they check if the blood on my shoes was my own (who else could it belong to?) but don't investigate whether the guard was involved in my case? I don't know.

I have one idea. I think they wanted to kill me not for any specific act, but for the sum total of them all. For everything I've done. And what have I done?

Let's begin by saying that for a long time I've been a convinced advocate of peace with Azerbaijan. Back in February 1992, my father and I called for an immediate ceasefire and talks on the status of Nagorny Karabakh. In fact, we proposed exactly what happened later.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that our appeal somehow influenced the developments, but the idea was in the air, so to speak, and we articulated it.

Later, I was in the very first group of Armenian journalists to visit Azerbaijan. Then I was the first Armenian author to write an article together with an Azerbaijani colleague, Shahin Rzayev, IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator. It was on the peace process, published simultaneously in Yerevan (Aravot), Baku (Echo) and IWPR's Internet service.

The article didn't cause any criticism from either the Armenian or the Azerbaijani side. In a word, I'm considered one of the "doves" of the Karabakh peace process, probably for good reason.

Then I called Robert Kocharian a dictator in an interview with the Azerbaijani newspaper Zerkalo. Many people in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora were furious.

Well, they don't kill for that. For that they write articles, throw mud at you. Which in fact was done in my case. So be it.

In the last few years, I became well known as a political analyst and author of essays about Armenia's ethnic minorities. My analytical articles and essays came out in thirteen countries, from the US to South Korea. In them, I offered my views on the political events in Armenia and the Karabakh settlement. But they don't kill for that either.

There is one thing, however, that makes me wonder. You see, I'm not under the control of any of the current political forces. So what? Well, nearly all my colleagues working in Armenian media in one way or another write for publications controlled by one political faction or another. Hence these journalists are themselves controlled - if not by the government, then by the opposition.

This, in turn, means that they are not society's independent watchdogs but servants to political masters. Therefore, one knows in advance whom any given journalist is going to criticise and whom to praise.

Thus, if a columnist of, say, Aravot covers the parliamentary murders, one knows in advance what the article is going to say. If I write about it, one can't predict what will come out. Will I be persuaded that the killings were masterminded by Robert Kocharian or will I accuse the opposition of the same? This is why I'm dangerous: dangerous because I am uncontrolled and unpredictable.

It's been a long time since I stopped publishing my political analyses in the local media because I don't want my name to be associated with any political organisation. I hope my friends who represent these parties will forgive me. It is very important for me to be outside politics, outside parties.

In order to publish analytical articles, I need to turn to foreign media. And whether I like it or nor, my pieces create a negative image for the presidential administration. This is precisely what they can't stomach in post-Soviet countries.

Finally, one other aspect of my work. No matter how much the authorities and the politicians close to them tried to convince the world that the Armenian press is free.

I always said the opposite. Not just me, of course - several human rights activists said the same.

What happened in the end? The authorities did all they could to create the image of a democratic country where freedom of speech is guaranteed (one of the key membership requirements for the Council of Europe), while people like me managed to spoil their efforts.

And there is one more thing. On three occasions in recent years I have led a group of local experts monitoring elections coverage. The results of our work were usually quite unpleasant for our state-owned media because in their coverage, they, as a rule, favour the incumbent candidate. Yet state-owned media, particularly television, should reflect all the viewpoints in society, not just the presidential one.

The conclusions made by the monitoring conducted by the European Media Institute and my group were brought to the attention of international organisations, including OSCE and the Council of Europe. Could one assume that the coverage of Armenia's presidential and parliamentary elections next year, particularly on television, is going to be biased against all candidates except the current president? Of course.

What if again I find myself at the epicentre of the future media monitoring and again record all violations?

One other thing. The attempt on my life was meant to scare all other journalists. I don't belong to the radical opposition, I don't criticise the authorities at every turn. On the contrary, I represent a balanced position. If people like me start getting killed, what kind of message does it send to the opposition?

Let's draw conclusions. Over the last six or seven years, I have done my best to create the kind of atmosphere in Armenia where people could think what they like and express their thoughts freely - not in their kitchens, but publicly. I want the law to apply to everyone in our country. I want to live in a peaceful country. Finally, I want to live in a free and civilized country. And I'll try to make this happen.

It seems that all of this makes me an undesirable person. I think they wanted to kill me for the sum total of the above - and to make an example of me.

This is why a "dark man" in light trousers came for me. Did he achieve what he wanted? Was it enough for him to throw the grenade, or did he think I shouldn't walk the earth under any circumstances? This I don't know.

Mark Grigorian has just taken up his former post as IWPR's Armenia Coordinator after spending a year setting up the Caucasian Media Institute.

Support our journalists