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Cartoon Crusader

Despite recent death threats, Armenian journalist Marianna Grigoryan and her team continue to battle on for press freedoms and holding the powers that be accountable.

by Savannah Delgross 23 March 2018

When MediaLab, an Armenian news portal, posted their satirical cartoon of Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan on their Facebook page on 28 January, a Facebook user, identifying himself as “Hayk Berman Ohanyan,” commented: “Don’t you think that you have crossed the line? Be careful, if you don’t want to suffer the same fate of the French.” It was an obvious reference to the terrorist attack that struck the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

 

The cartoon depicts Sargsyan surrounded by flowers, while, in the background, a soldier with only one foot is handed a sock by a general with the words: “This one [sock] is enough for you, soldier, right?” The caricature was produced as a reaction to the defense ministry’s purchase of a flower arrangement for 7 million drams (about $14, 600) in December 2017.

 

Ohanyan proceeded to send Marianna Grigoryan, editor in chief and founder of the MediaLab NGO and website, personal threats via Facebook messenger. He wrote “the clock is ticking” with an image of an hourglass. Another message told Grigoryan that her young daughter could also be in danger.

 

MediaLab editor in chief Marianna Grigoryan. Credit: RFE/RL Armenian service.

 

Grigoryan is an award-winning reporter based in Yerevan. Her work has been featured in EurasiaNetThe Washington Post, and The Guardian. She has won more than 20 international media awards, including the “Press Freedom Award - A Signal to Europe,” handed out by Reporters Without Borders Austria in 2009. At the Universal Rights Awards Ceremony last December, MediaLab received the Media Excellence award for its dedication to “starting public discussions on some of the most controversial issues that Armenian society faces today.”

 

Grigoryan and her team have received threats for their political work before. Unlike in the past, this time, in addition to the international attention and support, a criminal investigation has been launched. The inquiry has revealed the source of the comments to be Hayk Ohanyan, a 40-year-old retired army officer.

 

TOL recently spoke to Grigoryan about the case and its larger implications.

 

 

What is the latest update on the police’s investigation? How have they been cooperating with you?

 

The case is with the investigative committee. They organized a meeting with me, and with the person who wrote the messages to me. Our meeting lasted for four hours. I have no idea where the case is now. We are waiting. But this is a very important case. I didn’t imagine that it could be so intense. This is not only a case for me but also for our journalist community because it is not normal to send such tricks and messages to the media and to an editor.

 

I am very thankful to human rights organizations and international organizations, including embassies and the professional unions and many others for their position in this case. It is also very important because if there is no reaction, there will be no action. I don’t know what will happen in the end because in 2016 we had another case; my car was broken into and cartoons were stolen after our open-air exhibition. The police closed the case because they could not find the person who did it. This was very strange because there were so many security cameras where we were. It should’ve been easy to find who did it. That’s why I don’t know what will happen now. It was a very stressful time for me, really. But I hope this will bring change. I hope people will think twice before acting against free media rights, and journalists will feel safe.

 

Who is the artist of the cartoon that’s been targeted, and has he been receiving personal threats?

 

The cartoonist is Vahe Nersesyan, a France-based Armenian cartoonist. He founded MediaLab with me nine years ago, and we work closely together. Those messages came to me, but they were directed at both of us. Yes (he has been targeted before). Previously he was called in several times by the national security services – not officially, but they tried several times to put pressure on him when he was in Armenia, but [that] didn’t work with him or with me. This time, it was not directed only at me, but it was against our activities in general. We have young cartoonists and for their safety, I have asked them to not sign [their work] with their real names because our experience over the past nine years has taught us to protect them in that way.  

 

Cartoonist Vahe Nersesyan. Credit: Vahe Gevorgyan.

 

How have you and your team at MediaLab been coping with this? Do you view your work differently in any way?

 

No, it doesn’t affect us because we want to keep working. We are doing something we believe in. We could do really safe things and not political cartoons. Sometimes, people who are close to me tell me that I’m seeing everything with rose-tinted glasses, but I don’t think so. Vahe and I think that we can really bring changes in our community.

 

Do you feel you are more likely to receive threats as a woman working in the media industry?

 

No, I don’t really feel that way. When someone visits your page, they do not know if the page is being managed by a woman or a man. I think the threats have more to do with the content you are producing. But, maybe in this case, it affected me more as a mother. I was shocked when [that person] said my daughter’s name. I did not send my daughter to school for many days because I didn’t know who was writing me and what he could do. Recently, a colleague told me that because we are females, we have less opportunities. I think women can change many things in countries like this. I always feel strong, and I always feel that what I’m doing is right.

 

What is the purpose of political cartoons according to you?

 

Political cartoons are a very influential way to tell messages because, in countries like Armenia, people are afraid of anything and everything. Also someone might not read a big investigation, but you can inform them with one cartoon, and it will be influential. We are also practicing [other forms of] journalism and writing articles and columns, but the impact of cartoons does not compare. That’s why this attack has happened. People have used our cartoons during protests in Armenia.

 

MediaLab newsroom. Credit: Saro Baghdasaryan.

 

We really do this intentionally. We started this political cartoon project three years ago because we understood that we have to use this opportunity to send strong messages to society. It sometimes seems like people don’t want to see anything. I think we brought some changes to the [journalism] field because many media in Armenia are, unfortunately, under control.

 

How do you determine whether a cartoon is taking something “too far”?

 

We have our rules. Sometimes people compare us with Charlie Hebdo, but we are very different. Our cartoons are very polite compared to them. For example, they had provocative cartoons about Italy’s earthquake. We would never do that. We have our rules, but we draw cartoons of everyone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person sitting in the president’s chair, or lower-ranking. That’s why people believe in us, because they see that we are not the under control of or working for someone, which is a real problem in Armenia.

 

Were you hesitant to publish the cartoon that’s been targeted?

 

We have had much more critical cartoons than this one. This was not something very extravagant. That’s why I was so surprised. I think the problem here was the person [shown] in the cartoon – it was something connected to the defense minister – because, really, we have much stronger and influential cartoons; I cannot even compare [them to this one]. I did not even imagine such a controversy.

 

When you started your career, were journalists in Armenia treated differently than they are now?

 

I started my career 20 years ago, and it was a quite different situation. We had another person as president [Robert Kocharyan], and he was quite brutal in trying to solve problems with journalists. The current situation is quite different because the government acts very cleverly, instead of brutally; they are just trying to keep everything under control. They have their own websites. Nowadays, the media cannot survive without advertisements, which is a problem because the ads are also under their control. It is very difficult for media organizations to act independently.

 

Protesters holding MediaLab cartoons. Credit: Narek Aleksanyan.

 

I cannot then say that the situation has changed, but the ways the government tries to control us have changed. The violence happening in Armenia right now does not give hope for the safety of media freedoms. That’s why I think we got so much support from international organizations; they value what we do. They know that what we are doing is because we believe in the freedom of speech and know that we are not working for some [political] force in Armenia. It was very unexpected but important for us to get their support.

 

What do you hope the Armenian government will do to protect journalists and ensure a free press in the future?

 

First of all, the government needs to have the political will to protect press freedom. Right now, they prefer to keep many media outlets under their control and in this situation it is not realistic to speak about a free press. A free press cannot be controlled and thus cannot benefit them [the authorities]. We are seeing that the government is closing all the doors to journalists – closed discussions and sessions within the government and the Yerevan municipality. When [President] Serzh Sargsyan has a press conference, which happens very rarely, only a handful of carefully selected pro-governmental journalists are present with their predictable questions. His press conferences are always pre-recorded and edited for every channel. There would not be a better way to show political will for the protection of reporters than holding the perpetrators of violence against journalists and reporters accountable, yet what we see are direct orders of violence and the absence of adequate investigations.

 

Is there anything about your experience that you’d like to add?

 

We are not just doing political cartoons and journalism; we are also doing very creative projects. We are doing street art with very strong political messages and covering topics like domestic violence, abortions, and human rights. Exactly one year ago, we did a concert right before elections that was very influential. We also handed out election “bribes.” In Armenia, people get money to go elect someone. It was quite a widespread practice. While before the elections, human right organizations issued statements calling on people not to take bribes, we organized quite the opposite activity. We printed what looked like real money with a zero value (shown on them), so you could understand that it wasn’t real. One side looked like real currency and the other had cartoons, and we spread those “bribes” in the center of Yerevan with shouting and music and everything. It was very interesting and important.

 

We are trying to use art and journalism together to send messages and to awaken people. I hope that we will continue and become much bigger. Right now we are a very small team, but we’re a very strong team too.

Savannah Delgross is an editorial assistant at Transitions, where she is spending the semester as an intern. She attends Denison University in Ohio, where she served as managing editor of the student newspaper, The Denisonian, in 2017. She is a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship recipient.

 

All images reprinted with permission. 

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