Freedom of Expression,public report 2016, Armenia

Obstructing journalistic activity:

From 17 to 31 July 2016, the staff of the Human Rights Defender received

numerous reports of cases of obstructing the lawful activities of journalists. All the

reports were documented and reviewed under the respective procedures. Members

of the staff of the Human Rights Defender met with and interviewed the victims, and

in some cases also checked and corroborated the data through oral and written

queries. A number of sites were inspected, such as the part of the Sari Tagh district,

where the clashes had occurred between the demonstrators and police officers,

during which journalists had suffered. Eyewitness statements, mass media reports,

social media publications, and numerous statements and studies of local and

international human rights organizations, public figures, diplomatic missions, and

state bodies about the cases were collected and studied.

According to the collected facts, during the days in question, there had been

grave violations of the rights of journalists and operators of Azatutyun.am,

A1plus.am, Panorama.am, Lragir.am, Armlur.am, Panarmenian.net, PAN-Photo,

1in.am, NewsPress.am, and Haikakan Jamanak news units, as well as the Armenia

TV Jameh news program, and the Russian LifeNews news medium. The violations

were accompanied with violence, threats, persecution, damaging and destruction of

property and news material, including the apprehension of journalists and operators,

which was done by groups of police officers and plainclothes persons. There was one

documented case of firearms injury: while video recording the events around the

Police Patrol-Guard Service Regiment, a round shot from inside the Regiment injured

an operator of the 02 news agency.

The first cases of police violence against journalists were reported during the

period from 17 to 21 July. On 17 July, in Freedom Square, when a group of civil

activists were getting ready to hold an assembly, a police officer exerted violence

against a journalist after the latter had asked the police officer why they were

forcibly moving a citizen to the nearby police vehicle. The police officer saw that the

journalist was recording a video of the sight of apprehending the citizen, approached

the journalists, and started kicking him, after which a group of police officers forcibly

took him to the police station, from which he was soon released, having first deleted

the news video from his phone. A similar incident occurred on 18 July in Khorenatsi

Street, where one of the police officers hit the journalist after the latter asked why

they were apprehending citizens from the nearby park. In two of the above

described cases, the journalists have intervened into the police operations by asking

a question about the reasons of apprehending citizens, while in the third case the

journalist has not abided by the police officers’ instructions, which has resulted in a

conflict between the journalist and the police officers.

54 In this sense, it is necessary

to underline that the journalist must abide by a police officer’s instructions and

refrain from interfering with the actions of police officers. As noted by the European

Court of Human Rights, journalists cannot, in principle, be released from their duty to

obey the ordinary criminal law merely on the basis that, as journalists, Article 10 of

the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) affords them defense. It is

acceptable that journalists may sometimes become involved in situations when, on

the one hand, they must abide by the requirement of the law, and on the other, shall

perform their professional duty of acquiring and disseminating information, thus

enabling the mass media to perform their watchdog function. Nevertheless, in the

light of the described conflict of interest it is necessary to note that the concept of

responsible journalism requires the following: when a journalist has to choose

between the above mentioned two duties, and his/her choice is to the detriment of

the duty of obeying the criminal law, he/she should be aware that thereby he/she

assumes the risk of being brought to legal, including criminal responsibility for not

abiding by the police officer’s lawful instructions.55

On 19 and 21 July, there were documented cases of interfering with the

professional activities of journalists in Sari Tagh and in Khorenatsi Street: in one

case, the police officers destroyed the videos recorded by a journalist, and in

another, plainclothes persons exerted violence, seized the camera, and destroyed the

video of a clash between a group of activists and other persons in Khorenatsi Street.

The Human Rights Defender condemned the violence and called it an extremely

negative practice of obstructing the professional activity of a representative of the

mass media. The Defender announced that obstructing the performance of

professional duties of a journalist is a crime, and that all of the related materials

would be sent to the respective authorities for criminal prosecution. The Defender

invited all persons that had unpublished videos or information about violence against

journalists to transfer them to the staff of the Human Rights Defender.56

The United States Embassy welcomed the statement of the Human Rights

Defender.

The Delegation of the European Union in Armenia also joined this statement of

the Human Rights Defender. In a statement published with the consent of the heads

of diplomatic missions of EU Member States accredited in Armenia, the Delegation of

the European Union in Armenia acknowledged the aforementioned statement of the

Defender and underlined that the use of force for political change is unacceptable

and urged the Armenian authorities to conduct a full investigation into all reports of

police misconduct.57

Nonetheless, the violence against journalists and operators did not subside in

the days that followed. Moreover, the violence was marred by cases of apprehending

and arresting journalists, which did not trigger criminal prosecution or appropriate

administrative proceedings. For example, on 24 July, a journalist was apprehended

on suspicion of participating in the mass disorders of 22 July, which was followed by

the preparation of an apprehension protocol, his engagement as a witness, and his

subsequent release, while the journalist had been carrying out journalistic activities

in Khorenatsi Street on that day.

On 26 July, in his nine-paragraph statement, the Defender again expressed

concerns, among other things, over the allegations of bodily injuries inflicted upon

journalists and of the obstruction of their lawful professional work, calling those

cases “particularly condemnable.”58 The Delegation of the European Union in

Armenia reposted this statement in its social media, referring to it as a call for

inquiry, accountability, and transparency.59

All of the aforementioned acts constituted unlawful interference with journalistic

freedom. No law prohibits journalists from video-recording police conduct

in the public environment, because by doing so, a journalist is fulfilling a

mission of public importance — that of disseminating information on cases

of concern to the public, in view also of the public’s right to receive such

information. Hence, the police conduct interfered with not only the journalists‘

freedom to impart information, but also the public’s right to receive information.