TV cameraman wounded in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

Davit Atoyan, a cameraman for the independent Armenian television station Shant, was wounded in both legs on May 10, 2017 in Nagorno-Karabakh, when the Azerbaijani military opened fire on a vehicle he was in, according to media reports and his employer.

Atoyan, who is from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, was traveling in the television station’s camouflaged minivan with a colleague from Shant TV and a member of the local military who accompanied them for a trip to the disputed territory of a predominantly ethnic-Armenian enclave in south-eastern Azerbaijan.

Aghasi Hunanyan, the broadcaster’s director of information programs, told CPJ the crew were planning to shoot a weekly television program about the security situation along the border. The journalist was taken to a hospital in the regional capital, Stepanakert, for emergency surgery on May 11, 2017. He was then transferred to Yerevan.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a predominantly Armenian-populated region, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. It proclaimed independence as the Republic of Artsakh and has an elected parliament and other state institutions. The armies of the Yerevan-backed Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan regularly exchange fire, according to reports. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group on the region’s status.

The head of the Nagorno-Karabakh security council, Vitaly Balasanyan, was quoted by the Armenian Service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as saying that “large-caliber sniper firearms were used” to target the vehicle Atoyan was in.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said in response that the TV crew’s car, “camouflaged as an Armenian military vehicle initiated fire first” and Azerbaijani military “had to respond,” the Azerbaijani independent Turan news agency reported.

“One cannot blame Azerbaijan for a targeted attack on the journalists since the journalists were not properly identifiable. But the attack was illegal from general international human rights law perspective since the vehicle was not posing any threat to the Azerbaijani armed forces,” Ruben Melikyan, an ombudsman for the disputed region, told CPJ.

Hunanyan told CPJ on May 19, 2017, that the Azeri side opened fire first and that Atoyan was wounded when the three men left the vehicle to hide behind rocks. The minivan windows were shattered. A video of the incident, shown on Shant TV and viewed by CPJ, corresponds with Hunanyan’a account.

Hunanyan said the crew were wearing camouflage for security reasons. “They go to the border areas once a week, have been under fire before, including the times when they travelled with press insignia on the vehicle and their clothes. We believed it was safer for our journalists to wear camouflage,” he said adding that the Mitsubishi minivan is a vehicle the crew always uses in the disputed region and has white plates, unlike military vehicles that go with black plates.

On May 11, 2017, Armenian media reported that the country’s investigative committee is examining the incident.