Following the scandalous leak of phone calls between two senior Armenian officials, security officials have searched a news website they appeared to suspect of being in on the leak, drawing condemnation from press-rights groups.
On September 17, representatives of several security agencies came to the offices of Yerevan.Today and presented the journalists there with a search warrant, editor-in-chief Sevak Hakobyan told Eurasianet. “They searched everything else from financial documents to my personal computer and my Google drive and found nothing,” he said. “However, they got our archives and our future stories with our confidential sources.”
The raid was connected to an investigation into the release of recordings of phone calls between two top officials which appeared to show Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan personally intervening in court cases against former officials, which Pashinyan had previously denied doing. Pashinyan immediately demanded that the National Security Service investigate and find the source of the leaks.
A video compiling the phone calls was posted to YouTube on September 5 but media only noticed it on September 11.
Yerevan.Today was targeted because a Google search indicated the video first appeared there, the Investigative Committee said in a statement: “We received operative information that, according to Google, the leaked video which went viral on September 11 was published by Yerevan.Today two days before and deleted.” The report also said: “The search has nothing to do with journalistic activities. We only aim to ensure a comprehensive, objective and complete investigation of the criminal case that is being conducted to verify the preliminary findings that have already been obtained.”
But that is a misunderstanding of how Google works, media expert and IT security specialist Samvel Martirosyan told the news channel A1+. “If you search in Google it shows in the results when the page was stored by Google. The system was displaying false days for various media outlets,” Martirosyan said. “Let's hope that this is not the basis for the search. It's a strange reason, to say the least.”
Hakobyan said he believed the site was targeted for political reasons. He noted that the website armtimes.com, whose editor is Pashinyan's wife, Anna Hakobyan, first made the claim that Yerevan.Today was the first to publish the video.
There is a widespread belief that Yerevan.Today is close to Robert Kocharyan, the former president who has become a significant thorn in the side of the new leadership. And it is Kocharyan's prosecution that is being discussed in the tapped phone calls. But Sevak Hakobyan said his website has no connection with Kocharyan. “Our offices are just in the same building,” he said.
The international media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the raid: “The search of Yerevan.Today’s premises and the seizure of its equipment constitute grave violations of the principle of the protection of journalists’ sources, which is guaranteed by Armenian legislation and the European Court of Human Rights,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We regret that the police did not seek a less intrusive and more proportionate way to achieve their legitimate goal.”
Levon Sardaryan, head of an Armenian media rights group, told Eurasianet the group has yet to determine its position on the raid. “We haven’t responded to the search at Yerevan.Today because we don't yet understand whether it’s a matter of national security or an interference and obstruction in the work of the media. Moreover, if it turns out the media or the people that have been searched have nothing to do with the leaked phone calls, the people who have issued the search warrant will have to answer before the law.”
Ani Mejlumyan is a Yerevan-based journalist.