After threats, intimidation and incitement to violence led to the cancellation of a film festival to be held in Armenia's second largest city of Gyumri, nationalists, with the indirect support of the country's main political parties and some NGOs, have attacked a human rights organization for the same reason.
Police stood by as some in a crowd of around 200 people threw eggs and stones at the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly office in Vanadzor. International human rights organizations have decried the latest manifestation of intolerance and lack of freedom of expression in the former Soviet republic.
Although the demonstrations against the screening of Azerbaijani films in Armenia were not well attended, mobilization was coordinated through the mass media and on Facebook. The organizers also allege that local authorities canceled classes for students so they could attend. Video shows young people, unable to remember the time when Armenians and Azeris did live together in peace, forming the majority.
Whatever the size and attendance, the action succeeded as Tamada Tales explains.
Its films did not feature the graphic violence of Pazolini’s “Salo” or the merciless satire of Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Borat.” The single criticism of Armenia's “Stop” film festival was that its films were made in the enemy state, Azerbaijan. And, now, faced with a campaign of threats and abuse, the organizers have called the festival off.
A previous attempt to screen Azerbaijani films in Armenia also fell through in 2010. The organizers said they will keep trying to promote free thinking and help audiences on both sides of the 24-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan see through the veil of propaganda.
Ironically, those opposed to the festival justified their position by alleging there were no similarly moderate voices in Azerbaijan, Armenia's foe to the East. However, response to the attacks and threats targeting festival organizer Georgi Vanyan in particular have since shown that not to be the case.
Indeed, with nationalists as well as the government in Azerbaijan also against the festival, one Azeri youth activist was among those noting how many will do anything to prevent talk of peace and reconciliation.
@RuslanAZad: Neither both political elites & nor #Russia are interested in sincere movement for peace.Thus Vanyan had to be stopped #Armenia #azerbaijan
@RuslanAZad: I believe campaign against Vanyan was to greater extend political provocation than people's true desire. #Armenia #azerbaijan #caucasus
An anti-festival Facebook page included incitement to violence as well as threats against Vanyan and personal attacks on Global Voices’ Caucasus editor and one of Armenia's most prominent bloggers, Unzipped, who earlier commented on the nationalist action in Gyumri:
This was a campaign of bullying, intimidation, hate speech, direct death threats, psychological and physical abuse towards someone who you do not agree with. This was not a ‘civil’ protest. More like a mob rule.
As one of my Facebook friends commented on his page: is this how civilised and cultured people need to react to showing of film? “Do these protesters realize how insecure and weak they appear? So shameful…”
Once again, freedom of speech lost in Armenia. Once again, state structures in Armenia failed to protect constitutional rights and freedom of their citizens. There were no winners.
However, if the situation in Gyumri was one of concern, what happened next in Vanadzor was on another level entirely. Human Rights Watch issued a statement:
On the morning of April 16, some 200 people – including former military servicemen, students and political party representatives – gathered in the center of Vanadzor and marched toward the HCA's office. According to one of the witnesses, the crowd was led by the Union of Nagorno-Karabakh War Veterans (“Yerkrapah”).
The HCA’s Vanadzor office tried to negotiate with the crowd and allowed several of the protest’s organizers to enter their offices to discuss the group’s demands. However, several of the rally participants also entered the premises and threatened to break the equipment and furniture unless the NGO agreed not to show the films. The crowd outside chanted slogans: “Traitors, Shame, and Turks!”
HCA Vanadzor director Artur Sakunts offered to postpone the film screenings, but the crowd demanded full cancellation and started to throw eggs and rocks at the office. They broke several windows, and one stone hit an HCA employee. Several protest organizers demanded that Sakunts cancel the film festival or potentially face further violence. When protest organizers told Sakunts that they could no longer control the angry crowd, he yielded to the threats and agreed to cancel the film screenings. The crowd dispersed shortly thereafter.
HCA’s Vanadzor office called the police as soon as the crowd gathered outside the office, but police arrived only after the protest dispersed. According to one eyewitness, there were at least four policemen near the office during the protest, but they did not intervene to try to prevent the attacks.
Freedom House also commented on events:
Freedom House urges Armenian authorities to conduct an immediate, independent investigation into a mob attack against the offices of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA), a leading human rights organization, and the failure of police forces to calm the crowd or intervene when the situation began to turn violent. […]
The film festival is a project of the Caucasus Center of Peace Making Initiatives (CCPMI) to foster reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Armenian nationalist groups and political parties reportedly worked together to organize the protest rally to halt the event. Screening of the films had previously been scheduled at the offices of the Asparez Journalist Club in Gyumri, but was cancelled due to threats of similar attacks. Freedom House calls on authorities to perform their duty by protecting the festival and its organizers from harm and defending all citizens’ freedom of peaceful expression.
Armenia is rated Partly Free in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2011. Nations in Transit 2011 categorizes Armenia as a Semi-consolidated Authoritarian Regime. Ethnic and territorial tensions remain high between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations. A seven-year war over the semi-autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region ended with a ceasefire in 1994, but has yet to be fully resolved.
The latest blow to freedom of expression in Armenia follows attempts to silence a young author for his book which contains stories detailing hazing and abuse in the military. Meanwhile, attempts to discredit Vanyan domestically as well as internationally continue online as well as off, with some civil society organizations complicit.
Raising further questions about the sincerity of peace building initiatives in the country, as well as the extent to which freedom of expression will be tolerated in the future, concerns that the authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan are more interested in perpetuating the ‘image of the enemy’ in their respective societies continue.