Media Groups Slam Government Re `Unpunished’ Attacks On Journalists

Radio Free Europe, Czech republic
June 30 2004

Media Groups Slam Government Over `Unpunished’ Attacks On Journalists

By Ruzanna Khachatrian
30/06/2004 14:15

Armenia’s leading media associations demanded on Tuesday that the
authorities respect freedom of speech, accusing them of failing to
identify and punish the perpetrators of unprecedented violence
against journalists that covered recent opposition demonstrations.

`We again demand respect for the public’s right to receive and the
journalists’ right to spread information and prevention of any
attempts to infringe on them,’ said a joint statement released by the
Yerevan Press Club, the Armenian Union of Journalists, the Committee
to Protect Freedom of Speech and the Armenian branch of the U.S.
Internews organization.

The statement dismissed as a `farce’ the trial earlier this month of
two men who were fined 100,000 drams ($185) each for taking part in
the April 5 attack on photojournalists present at an opposition rally
in downtown Yerevan. They were part of a larger group of burly men
that tried to disrupt the protest, throwing eggs at its organizers
and setting off firecrackers. The thugs, who reportedly work for
government-connected wealthy individuals, went on to indiscriminately
smash most of the video and still cameras that caught their faces.
Dozens of police officers led by General Hovannes Varian stood by and
refused to intervene.

`Neither the investigating body nor the court showed a desire to
protect the journalists’ right to collect and disseminate
information, not to mention the fact that the imposed punishment was
not commensurate with the deed,’ the media groups said.

`We expected that there will be other revelations and trials but
nothing has been done over the past period to identify the
perpetrators of the other violent acts,’ they added, pointing to the
beating by the police of four journalists covering the brutal
break-up of the April 12-13 protest near President Robert Kocharian’s
Yerevan residence.

One of those journalists, Hayk Gevorgian of the `Haykakan Zhamanak,’
says that Varian, who is the deputy chief of the national police
service, personally stole his camera before ordering subordinates to
attack him. Gevorgian spent two weeks recovering from severe injuries
sustained during the beating. Ashot Melikian of the Committee to
Protect Freedom of Speech deplored the fact Varian has faced no
official inquiries or any disciplinary action over the allegations.

The joint statement also urged Armenian journalists to close ranks in
the face of what its signatories see as a government effort to
further curb press freedoms in the country. According to Boris
Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), the Armenian
media community must consider violence against a single journalist an
affront to free speech.

The Armenian media’s coverage of the recent standoff between the
government and the opposition was scrutinized at a seminar held by
the YPC on Tuesday. Levon Barseghian, chairman of the Asparez Club of
journalists in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri, described it as
largely `distorted,’ singling out local television stations for

`TV and radio stations seem to have an invisible bar which they are
not allowed to cross in order to speak more freely and criticize the
authorities, especially Robert Kocharian,’ Barseghian told the
seminar. He was particularly scathing about the Kocharian-controlled
state television’s coverage of the confrontation, denouncing it as
`adverse and disastrous.’

In Navasardian’s words, this situation makes even more urgent the
reopening of A1+, Armenia’s sole major private network that was often
critical of the authorities. A1+ was controversially forced off the
air more than two years ago. The authorities have since resisted
strong international pressure for its reopening. The continuing ban
on A1+ is the main reason why the Armenian media was recently rated
`not free’ by Freedom House, a New York-based human rights group, for
the second consecutive year.

Addressing the Council of Europe last week, Kocharian disputed
assertions that Armenia’s electronic have lacked diversity and
pluralism since A1+’s closure and urged the Strasbourg-based
organization to remove the issue from the agenda of its ongoing
monitoring of his administration’s human rights record.

But Navasardian disagreed, saying that A1+’s return to the airwaves
is `the only chance to have an independent electronic media outlet in
Armenia.’ `Journalists or a group of journalists do not have the
resources and the political cover to set up such a television
channel,’ he said. `That is the reason why we talk so much about