By Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenian law-enforcement authorities declined Sunday to give any clues to the previous night’s shock killing of Tigran Naghdalian, chief of state television and radio, amid a flood of condemning statements from senior government officials, public figures and journalists.
Naghdalian, 36, was fatally wounded in the back of his head with a single shot as he left his parents’ apartment in central Yerevan late in the evening. He was rushed hospital but died on the operating table more than two hours later.
President Robert Kocharian was quick to condemn the murder, saying that it was aimed at undermining Armenia’s “stability and progress.” He said those who ordered it “have thrown a gauntlet to the entire society” and vowed to “do everything” to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“The crime will not be forgiven neither by me, nor by the public,” Kocharian said in a statement late on Saturday.
Naghdalian, who had headed the state-owned Armenian Public Television since 1998, was a staunch supporter of Kocharian and a harsh critic of his political opponents. The channel, the most accessible in Armenia, has cancelled all entertainment programs, broadcasting somber music and featuring prominent people condemning the shooting throughout Sunday.
Shocked by the crime, many politicians and journalists were left wondering who might be interested in the death of a veteran journalist and figure close to Kocharian.
A team of investigators from the police and prosecutor-general’s office, meanwhile, said it is looking into all possible versions of the murder, but refused to reveal any of them. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said they are still conducting forensic tests and have not identified any suspects yet.
The criminal proceedings are being conducted under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code which deals with assassinations of senior officials aimed at “subverting or weakening the government.” Naghdalian’s funeral will be organized on Monday by a special government commission headed by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
The investigators and the victim’s family believe that the gunman who shot at Naghdalian had apparently hidden behind a staircase on the ground floor of the apartment building. Naghdalian’s brother Samvel told RFE/RL that he and his father ran out of their apartment immediately after hearing a gunshot, but did not see anyone except the bleeding television chief.
The country’s ruling establishment sees political motives behind the killing. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said that it was directed against freedom of speech and “democratic values,” while the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party, with which Naghdalian had been affiliated from 1991-94, described it as “political terrorism.”
In a statement, the Dashnaktsutyun leadership claimed that the shooting was masterminded and carried out by those who want to heighten political tensions and destabilize the situation in Armenia. The nationalist party named no names, however.
There was no reaction from leaders of opposition parties that are regularly subjected to strong criticism by the pro-Kocharian state television. They have previously held Naghdalian responsible for what they believe is a highly biased coverage of their activities.
Also expressing shock and indignation were Armenia’s leading media associations. One of them, the Yerevan Press Club (YPC) , said “such appalling acts create an atmosphere of fear and undermine freedom of speech and democracy.” “Whatever the motive for this crime is, it is another example of insolent challenge to our society and Armenian journalism, in particular,” read a statement by the club.
Even those journalists who disagreed with the Naghdalian-run TV channel’s style of reporting joined the chorus of condemnations. “I am shocked by that flagrant and coward crime and demand that its organizers be identified and strictly punished,” said Aram Abrahamian, editor of the pro-opposition “Aravot” daily.
According to the YPC, Naghdalian’s murder reflects an alarming trend of growing attacks on Armenian journalists. “During the past 10 years, there have been numerous instances of violence against journalists in Armenia: attacks, beatings and attempted murders. Yet 2002 was unrivaled in this regard,” the group said.
“If such things can happen here, then maybe our society is sick,” agreed independent journalist Mark Grigorian, victim of a recent grenade attack that nearly cost him his life. Nobody has been arrested or charged in connection with that attack.
“I’m afraid this investigation will yield the same results,” Grigorian told
RFE/RL on Sunday.
RFE/RL’s Armenian broadcasting service, for which Naghdalian had worked from 1995-97, also offered its sympathy and condolences to his family and colleagues.