The entrance to Armenian media outlet the Hayeli Press Club was defaced by a group of young men on 5 October for being ‘anti-Armenian’. The incident has been widely condemned and an investigation opened for disrupting a journalists’ work.
Hayeli is run by the sister of Hrayr Tovmasyan, the head of the constitutional court and a prominent critic of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Tovmasyan was appointed by the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
In a video recorded and uploaded to Facebook by the vandals, the men are seen approaching the Hayeli office and upon finding the door locked, proceed to throw several eggs at it. At the end of the video, they put printouts of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev and the director of Hayeli, Anzhela Tovmasyan.
In the video, the men claim they are protesting against an article titled ‘Ilham Aliyev’s Delayed but “Strong” Response to Pashinyan’, they say they believe it to be anti-Armenian and pro-Azerbaijani.
The article in question concerns comments made by Ilham Aliyev during the Valdai Summit in Sochi several weeks ago. During the summit, and in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Azerbaijani President countered the now famous statement made by Pashinyan in August, ‘Karabakh is Armenia — period’ by saying, ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan — exclamation point’.
The article went on to say that Aliev made this statement in front of Putin in an attempt to show that Moscow sides with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In the video, one of the participants demands that the media outlet be closed. He states that Hayeli’s director, Anzhela Tovmasyan, does not have the right to work in Armenia since she is the sister of Hrayr Tovmasyan, the controversial head of the Constitutional Court.
They also say that, had the doors been open, they would have vandalised the inside of the office as well.
‘Freedom of speech under threat’
Condemnation of the vandalism came quickly and from all major political parties.
During a press briefing in parliament on 7 October, the head of the opposition Bright Armenia party, Edmond Marukyan, said that incidents like this will harm Armenia’s reputation. However, he also added that ‘activities by several citizens should not be a reason to consider that freedom of speech is under threat in Armenia’.
Vladimir Vardanyan from the ruling My Step coalition said that even though he had been criticised by Hayeli many times, he still condemned what happened. ‘I am ready to give my life for the right of any media outlet to express its opinion’, Vardanyan said.
Human Rights Defender of Armenia Arman Tatoyan put out a statement on his Facebook page:
‘Targeting journalists or media outlets for their professional work puts freedom of speech under threat. This is unacceptable. Immediate measures should be taken by law enforcement agencies to prevent such incidents from happening again’, the statement reads.
The Union of Journalists also condemned the attack, stating: ‘Similar activities are a result of the atmosphere, rhetoric and hate speech against the press, media workers and freedom of expression existing in our country for a long time.’
This was followed by an announcement by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) also condemning the attack.
The same day the video was published, Gor Abrahamyan, the press secretary of the Prosecutor General’s Office posted a statement on Facebook in which he said that an investigative body had already been tasked with looking into the case.
‘The pro-Armenian line is of the greatest value for us’
Hayeli Press Club is known for its oppositional stance towards the Pashinyan Government. Hayeli’s director, Anzhela Tovmasyan, is also the sister of the Head of the Constitutional Court Hrayr Tovmasyan.
Judge Tovmasyan has been the subject of controversy lately, as the National Assembly voting to strip him of his powers in early October, claiming that he had improper ties with Armenia’s pre-revolutionary government.
On 14 October, the Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought forward by the National Assembly regarding Tovmasyan, allowing him to stay in his position for another six years until his term ends.
[Read more on OC Media: Armenian Parliament votes to strip power from head of constitutional court]
In an editorial published on the day of the vandalism, the Hayeli Press Club denied that they were ‘anti-Armenian’.
‘For those making weak-minded announcements that our website contains anti-Armenian propaganda, we advise they take a look at all the articles published since we first opened and see for themselves that the pro-Armenian line is of the greatest value for us beyond any politics, unlike certain zombies that support today’s ruling authorities.’
As for the response to the article specifically, they wrote it was likely because ‘[our critics] were unable to understand the meaning of the quotation marks around the word “strong” in the headline’.
Four days after the attack, on 9 October, Anzhela Tovmasyan sent a letter to the President of the Investigative Committee requesting that the four men from the video be criminally charged and that she be included in the case as a victim.
On 8 October, the Yerevan City Investigative Department announced it had launched an investigation into the incident with the four participants being included in the case as suspects. They have been prohibited from leaving the country.
On 15 October, the Investigative Committee of Armenia announced that the four had been charged with Section 1 of Article 164 of the Criminal Code of Armenia which states that hindering a journalist’s professional, legal work or forcing them to not publish information or prepare to publish information is punishable by a fine of ֏11 million–֏22 million ($23,000–$46,000).
Shushan Doydoyan, the founder of the Freedom of Information Centre, a local NGO, said the attack was contemptible and that it threatened all news organisations. Next time, she said, the attacks may be more violent and extreme.
‘This is a reflection of the current political atmosphere. Whatever is being discussed or threatened on online platforms has now crossed the border to the physically real world’, she told OC Media. ‘When I condemned these attacks, I myself was also targeted and verbally attacked online.’
Doydoyan doubted that there was not enough evidence to find the group guilty of obstructing a journalist’s work because, legally, they did not prevent the media outlet’s work.
‘The first step should be to legally define what hate speech is in Armenia and how those who spread it should be held responsible’, Doydoyan said.