It’s starts with the small things. A decision here, a regulation there, and by the time you realize what has happened, it’s too late to reverse the trend.
Media outlets were informed today that reporters will no longer have physical access to Yerevan city council sessions. This decision comes on the heels of a brawl last week between members of the opposition Yerkir Tsirani and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA).
The incident occurred when two women councillors of Yerkir Tsirani attempted to present Mayor Taron Margaryan with jars of sewage to highlight the concerns of residents of Nubarashen, a suburb of the capital city. Sewage from the Nubarashen prison had been seeping into the streets of the district causing concern and making residents ill. The women were confronted by a group of men from the RPA faction who tried to prevent them from reaching the mayor and in the ensuing melee, a number of them physically attacked councillor Marina Khachatryan.
Artur Gevorgyan, the mayor’s spokesman said today that moving forward, reporters would only be able to follow the council sessions through monitors in a separate room. According to Azatutyun, Gevorgyan said that this should not be seen as an impediment to the work of journalists, however added that live broadcast of the sessions could be suspended if any of the councillors acted in a way that was deemed to be “hooliganism.”
Earlier this month, Armenian Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan also decided to bar reporters from government sessions. Furthermore, members of the government would be restricted from talking to reporters without prior permission from the prime minister. Justice Minister Davit Harutyunyan remarked that all governments in the world conduct their meetings behind closed doors. He said that to ensure transparency, when and if there are issues of importance, it would be the prime minister’s responsibility to inform the public of those matters.
On January 28, Marianna Grigoryan the editor of MediaLab.am received threats following the publication of a political cartoon depicting Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan, who according to some media reports had spent over $15,000 on flowers. The cartoon shows the defense minister standing in front of a bouquet of flowers with an army veteran behind him with a missing leg. An army colonel holds out a single sock and asks the veteran, “This is enough for you, isn't it soldier?”
The Facebook user who allegedly threatened Grigoryan is retired army officer Hayk Berman Ohanyan. According to Grigoryan, he sent her private messages, warning her of the fate of the 12 staffers of Charlie Hebdo that were murdered and mentioning her young daughter after which she reported the incident to police and asked for protection for her and her family. The accused told investigators that he was upset that Grigoryan had featured a humiliated solder and claimed he had not threatened any harm. No charges have been laid in connection with the threats.
The role of the media cannot be overstated. Suppressing the free flow of information is not in the public interest. What is in the public interest is for society to see and read how those in positions of power act according to the laws of the land. It is the role of media to ensure that elected officials are accountable to those they have been elected to serve. By curtailing media freedoms, the ruling authority is undermining one of the most important pillars of democracy. The right to inform, publish and report what is in the public interest is the job of the media. Trying to control the message is a slippery slope and one this fragile democracy cannot afford.