YPC Weekly Newsletter

2004


PERSPECTIVE

LEVON GRIGORIAN:
“THEY TRIED TO KILL ME FOR BEING A JOURNALIST”

On April 12, 2004 the demonstration and rally by the National Assembly organized by the opposition political forces in Yerevan ended with a dispersal of the participants. At about 00:30 the street illumination was switched off in Baghramian avenue, and at 2 o’clock in the morning the sit-in of the demonstration participants was dispersed by the power structures using special devices – water jets, explosive bags, rubber bludgeons, electroshockers. Among those injured were four journalists who were covering the events. Criminal proceedings were instituted on a number of incidents that happened to the media representatives. Seven months have elapsed, but to this day no one has been punished for beating journalists. Moreover, attempts are made to throw the events of that notorious night into oblivion or to present them from a lighter perspective. This is the reason why we decided to give a detailed narrative of what happened to cameraman, currently acting head of the bureau of the First Channel (ORT) in Yerevan Levon Grigorian, as he tells it himself.

– The First Channel TV company assigned me to prepare a report about the night rally. 15-20 minutes before the start of the well-known events I arrived closer to the place of the sit-in and started to shoot. The situation was so calm that I thought it was about to be over. Then I felt the silence come down – a very strange kind of absolute silence. And I saw that the one layer of barbed wire is being removed. I thought, thanks Heaven, if they are removing it, it means it is truly over. Then a water jet came up to the first line of enclosure with no sound and threw a mighty water stream on people. People certainly got mad; they stood up and started throwing stick and plastic bottles at the car behind the barbed wire. The car went on with its job, undisturbed. I thought again that this should be the end: being soaking wet, the people would disperse. And then soldiers started to appear from two sides. Again, no one expected any provocation, since they remained behind the wire. Suddenly they started throwing explosive bags, and from the side of the pass desk of the National Assembly, that is, the side that the rally participants were on, within an instant special troops jumped out, electroshock devices in their hands, blocking the whole street. People became actually trapped, there was only a narrow passage left on the opposite part of the sidewalk. And the massacre started. I was standing with my camera by the first line of the enclosure and was shooting what was happening, then I crossed the street and started to retreat towards the Opera House with the crowd. Then all of a sudden four civilians attacked me out of the crowd and tried to snatch my camera away.

– Had they addressed you before that in some way, like saying “stop the shootings, do not shoot”?

– No, they simply attacked me from behind, and it was unclear who these people were. The special troops were wearing either helmets, or red caps. As a war cameraman I went through practically the whole war in Karabagh, and so among the red-capped troopers I saw a couple of guys I knew: they advised me to get away as soon as possible. But these four civilians were simply trying to take my camera away from me, a scuffle started. I was holing the camera with one hand, and was trying with my leg and my other arm to fight them back. But it is very difficult to fight back four people when you are alone and are carrying a heavy professional camera on your shoulder. One of these four, a short one, came from behind and gave me as strong a punch on my nose as he could. It started bleeding, I lost my sense of direction but still did not let the camera go. Then these four dragged me out to the roadway, where the special troops were operating. People in helmets ran up to me, I think, there were six or seven of them, and they started to punch me with electroshockers all over.

– You did not faint?

– No, but you know, when you are stricken with electroshock on your arms, sides, legs, these parts of your bodies get paralyzed for some time. These special troop guys did see some civilians attack me – a person with a professional camera bearing a label of the First Channel, dressed in a cameraman’s jacket, and they exerted no violence against these civilians but started to beat me instead. I fell down, the civilians took the camera and left, while the special troopers continued to beat me. They were in helmets with visors and I could not see faces. They continued beating me on the asphalt by bludgeons and legs, paralyzed as I was. When the effect of the electroshock started to weaken, I was trying to rise, they again used the shockers, preventing me from doing so, and went on beating me again with bludgeons and legs.

– Were they telling you anything?

– I only heard one voice, who was shouting all the time: “Do not look at me!”, then they threw my jacket on my face. And the kept swearing because my blood was spilling on their clothes. Besides someone was constantly spraying gas into my eyes for me not to see anything. I do not know how long it all lasted, but then I heard someone say: “OK, that’s enough, he is about to kick off, leave him alone." And they took me by my shoulders, dragged me on the sidewalk like a piece of rug and left under a tree. When the pain became somewhat duller, I thought – I don’t have my camera, I don’t have my mobile phone, I do not have my things. And I started to look for my things crawling on my knees.

What makes me all the more insulted is that having gone through all of Karabagh war as a war cameraman, when the country is at peace, I was simply doing my job, I was not making public disorder or anything else, yet, I was beaten, and not simply beaten – they were trying to kill me. They were not really choosing some spots that would be less painful or less vital, they were striking wherever they could, without giving much thought to it. I have stripes left by the bludgeons. What for?

– Could they be trying to kill you simply because you were a journalist?

– I have no other explanation to this now.

– What happened next?

– Then the ambulance arrived. You know, I am a Caucasian, and I took all that happened as an insult. I could have properly resisted, if attacked by one person, face-to-face, but when you are assaulted like this… I was so mad that when the ambulance stopped – apparently someone said there was a dead body lying under the tree – and the doctor came up to me, I remember starting swearing at him. He said: “Say whatever you feel like saying, but let me examine you.” I looked like a jumble of flesh and blood. They provided the first aid to me, then looked for my things with me and put me into the car. There were several people sitting in the ambulance, I remember a woman who was stricken on the leg with a bludgeon so hard that she could not walk. I refused to go to the hospital and asked to be taken to our office to be able to contact Moscow. My clothes were shred into pieces, I had blood and water all over me, and my clothes, as if to spite me, were brand new on that day. And here I probably made a huge mistake. When I was visited by my colleagues from “A1+” TV company in my office, I did not allow them to shoot me looking like that. I was embarrassed. But the life came to prove again that it is purely a show, and one must act by its rules. If I had allowed the shootings, no questions would arise later. I only allowed shooting my jacket. I made a call to Moscow, told them what happened, that I was deprived of the camera, the tape, everything and I have no story to send them in the morning. Then I went home, had a shower, came back to the office and in an hour or so I felt bad. I was taken home. I could never imagine that one can swell because of beatings, and here I started to swell myself. In the morning I could not move at all. I called the Arabkir Police Department and reported the incident. I introduced myself immediately, saying I am a staff member of the First Channel. In some 15 minutes three policemen came to my place and filed a charge-sheet. They said I had to undergo forensic examination. And, as far as I remember, I managed to go for an examination with the help of my friends. I was X-rayed, and so on. It appeared my nose had been broken, my right arm, with which I was holding the camera during my fight with the civilians, was seriously injured. I had some other numerous injuries, too.

– Were you given the official results of the forensic examination?

– No, I was told that no such document can be given to the injured party, it is included into the case, and only an extract from it can be obtained from the Prosecutor’s Office. Luckily, I have the copies of the papers I got when I was being examined. I knew who I was dealing with and I made copies for myself just in case.

On April 14 I was telephoned from the Arabkir Police Department and was told: “Your camera has been found, it is at the press-center of the RA Police.” The camera was broken, it certainly had no tape. The whole problem started because of the tape. I had the camera on all the time when attacked by civilians.

– Were you given explanations as to how the camera had been found?

– What I was told sounds like a joke. I was told that several unknown people had found the camera in the bushes and handed it over to the police. A professional camera that costs several thousands of dollars… Anyway… I am grateful that my camera was found so fast, my mobile and other things were found and returned, too. I was probably luckier than my other colleagues who were injured, as far as I know some of them had been returned nothing to this day. I was lucky in terms of being a Russian correspondent, because of which special attention was given to my case. The Interior Minister of Russian Federation sent a paper to the Russian Foreign Office for my case to be undertaken urgently. A representative of the Russian Embassy in Armenia had a meeting with me.

From the very start, when I addressed the Arabkir Police Department, the charge-sheet on what had happened was made on three pages, but then, when the case was transferred to the General Prosecutor’s Office and was taken under the personal control of the General Prosecutor, a detailed report was produced. The investigation was conducted in a very polite manner, with no pressure. I was repeatedly summoned for testimony. This is understandable, I told them everything just like I am telling you now.

– Have you been asked, say, to identify those four civilians?

– Certainly. But I cannot identify them. They were very sudden in attacking me, they came from behind, I can only remember vaguely that the one who punched me on the nose was short, and one of them was fat, wearing a black jacket and a black cap. I remember nothing more. But look what happens here. If they were civilians, it means they possibly were the rally participants. But why would they hand me over to the special troops?! I cannot identify the guys from the special troops, either: their faces were hidden. I was called afterwards from the President’s Office and from the Parliament, I was asked whether I could identify anyone. The investigators say, if only you could identify anyone, because there is actually no one specific to be charged. So it looks like my case is a dead-end? I am telling them – guys, who is going to compensate the material damage, the camera is expensive. I am not even speaking about the moral damage, one can hardly consider it in our state. The answer is – our task is to find those guilty, and if we do find them, the court is to decide who is going to compensate the damages.

– What do you know about the progress of the investigation today?

– Almost nothing. I made an official enquiry with the General Prosecutor’s Office. They told me that the investigation is underway.

– So the case has not been dismissed, the investigation continues.

– It looks like that. But who is responsible for all this? I do not know. But I am very insulted to be treated like that in my country, at peace, when doing my work. I am often told – you are lucky not to be killed.

– How probable do you think the disclosure of the case is?

– The probability is equal to zero, there are no chances whatsoever. Because I am asked: “Can you recognize their faces?” No. So if I cannot identify anyone that is how it should be?!

– Is it possible that if no specific people responsible are found, the guilt will be placed on the structure they are affiliated with?

– Of course no. What happened is outrageous, it is outrageous that journalists can be treated like that. There are many ways to prohibit the work of a journalist. Just come up, say, you cannot shoot here, take the tape away, but not killing me simply for making shootings…

– During the days that followed the events in April one high-ranked official said it was necessary for journalists to wear special uniform to be distinguished from the crowd, so that in similar situation the law enforcement bodies were able to differentiate journalists from other people. Let us assume, even though it sounds like science fiction, that those who were beating you, both the civilians and the special troopers, did not realize you were having a professional camera, did not see the label of the First Channel on it. If you had a uniform on, that would not leave any doubts that you are a journalist even at night, you would not be treated the same?

– I am more than sure that I would. Those who were beating me, I heard them say – so you are shooting for Moscow, we’ll show you how to shoot. And the paradox of the situation is that my TV company, the First Channel, is extremely sympathizing with the Armenian authorities, and they were trying to kill me, the representative of this channel.

– What can be done to protect the journalists from violence?

– Look, on April 5 cameras were broken, the next time they started a massacre. What comes next? We have had broken cameras, we have had beaten journalists. Do killed journalists come next? I was very moved by the attention of my colleagues on those days. There were phone calls from everywhere… But if all the journalists, regardless of what media they work for, simply as people united by this profession would stand up and say for even one day: we are stopping our work protesting against being killed, maybe something would change.

– Do you believe such solidarity is possible in Armenia?

– Unfortunately not. Although I would very much like to believe in it. But similar incidents can happen to anyone else tomorrow. And to prevent it, we probably need to be united. You know, I do not want to say some loud words, I am not a public person. I am not used to giving interviews, I am used to being on the other side of the camera. But dismissing one case, then the other, we will come to the third case. It will surely be more terrible that the previous two, ending, thanks God, without deaths. If we leave all this unpunished, this third case, when the hands are completely untied, will be awful.

– Aren’t you scared to go on working?

– Not at all. The words “facing the death” may sound too pompous, but I went through all the Karabagh war from the very start and I really did face death. I covered events in Georgia, the whole rose revolution, all the events in Ajaria. That is, I have huge experience in working at “hot spots”. But to be caught like that, to be abused like that in your own country… It is not a matter of being hurt, I feel very insulted.

PS. Cameraman Levon Grigorian or Leva the Big, as his friends and colleagues call him for his height and powerful stature, was born in 1957 in Yerevan. He has been working for television since 1980. Throughout his almost 25-year career Levon Grigorian worked for the only state television during the Soviet times, then – for the first private TV company “A1+”, collaborated with “Vesti” newscast of the Russian RTR channel, with BBC, SkyNews, CNN. He has been employed by the First Channel since 1993.

The fist “hot spot” in his life and profession was Karabagh. “In 1988, when the conflict was just starting, I registered as a member of volunteer troops. But I soon understood that it was not for me, I cannot kill people. I came back to Yerevan, took the camera and since the earliest days of the war I worked in Karabagh. I started with the coverage of situation in Shahumian district. It was sieged at that time, and it was there that Azerbaijanis started to use “Grad” bombing emplacements at night for the first time. We thought it very important to shoot what was happening as a prove that a full-scale war had started. And you now, none of us then thought of making money, we simply wanted the world to know the truth.”

Elina POGHOSBEKIAN