The criminal case initiated against the human rights defender Sashik Sultanyan, in which he is accused of inciting enmity among the Yezidis, the national minorities of RA, may become a dangerous precedent.
Sashik Sultanyan is the president of the “Yezdi Center for Human Rights” NGO, since 2018 he has been trying to inform and help Yezidis who face violations of their rights.
In 2020, the NSS initiated a criminal prosecution against Sultanyan, based on an interview he gave to Yezidinews.com, where he said that Yezidis in Armenia are discriminated against, and are not permitted to study their language, develop their culture, and are not sufficiently represented in local government bodies. They also live “in fear.”
This was considered a sufficient basis to charge Sashik Sultanyan with the article of inciting national, racial, or religious enmity.
And since there are always differences in the interpretation of laws, one can start to think, when has talking about rights violations started to be qualified as inciting national enmity and implies criminal responsibility? And when is it perceived as human rights work?
In any case, the court case is still ongoing and it seems that there are much stronger and invisible connections than the logical chains that the laws suggest.
Usually, this happens in imperfect judicial systems, and the statement “Everything is fine” does not imply any critical words. A critic becomes a hostile and undesirable person, and a person who speaks only positive things becomes a desirable hero.
The lawsuit filed against you is quite surprising, considering that there are definitely more important public issues that we hardly talk about. Is the Yezidi community not in a hurry to take ownership of these issues?
First of all, they want to say how important it is to have information about all groups of society. Be it information about success, challenges, or problems.
It is often believed in our society that, for example, the problems of people with disabilities should be dealt with by those with disabilities, and the issues of national minorities should be solved only by the representatives of that community.
Meanwhile, the existing problems should become public property and not be seen only as agendas of some groups.
If they are issues of human rights, they should be included in a broad category. The same goes for ethnic, economic, or gender issues. This is necessary so that the groups dealing with these issues are not marginalized.
In our organization, we have made this approach relevant by raising issues that were not discussed before.
Especially in societies like ours, where there is a young democracy and the fact that the state system is young, additional impulses were needed.
After 2018, did you think it was time for those impulses?
After the revolution, we expected positive changes, particularly regarding freedom of speech, national minorities and general human rights.
There should be support and advisory circles among the state institutions and target groups implementing reforms.
The real problems should be visible.
And we started talking about those problems from the day our organization was founded. You had a human rights department where people came to share their problems and received solutions. We also spoke about it in the media, first of all in Khirat media.
The state finances media platforms of national minorities. This year, Yezidi newspapers received more money than they usually receive. Nothing seemed to change.
The transmission of information about national minorities in their language and about them is an important direction for our state, which has been doing this work since the 2000s, paying particular attention to the financing of newspapers of stateless national minorities. I also once worked in a structure that had its own official newspaper.
If I am not mistaken, Yezidis now have two monthly newspapers.
But the problem is not which media they give money to, but how effective that media is in realizing the right of national minorities to receive information in their own language.
This can be understood, for example, thanks to feedback.
But we don’t have a monitoring mechanism to understand whether the community is accomplishing a positive result or not. In the case of digital media, this can be calculated to some extent.
For example, in the last year, 20% of Yazidis in Armenia have watched Khirat media at least once. It is an indicator that we do not have in the case of newspapers. In the case of newspapers, we also cannot know what kind of behavioral change the person had after receiving the information.
There was a phase when the government proposed to stop printing newspapers and instead develop digital media for ethnic minorities.
In this matter too, there was a lack of coordination and consultation, because the structures of national minorities often do not have the capacity to understand what is more effective and relevant.
And do they have a desire? After all, there are many media organizations that advise and support working with the audience.
I think there has always been a desire to continue working in a classical way. Perhaps they are not able to formulate their demands from print media.
After all, you can distribute a much larger amount of content with digital media for the money you spend on printing. Digital media is cheaper, targeted and effective.
And the community decided that the newspaper is necessary?
I don’t know if there were formal discussions or not, but many things are going by way of the current. As it was, so it continues. Many organizations will not be motivated to have that state resource.
For example, there are communities that do not rely on state support, they bought a domain with their own money, opened a website, and write two articles a month. And it has a hundred times greater effect than the newspapers printed with the money collected from RA citizens’ taxes.
Evidently, monitoring is also important to understand what stereotypes exist about Yezidis and how the major news outlets spread them.
The relevance of the media in preserving the identity of national minorities cannot be a matter of discussion, because we have advice and suggestions from various specialized structures (the Office of National Minorities of the OSCE, the Council of Europe) on how the media has an influence.
Many existing problems are not related to the fact that the state or the community does not want to solve them, but that there are no structures and bodies that should deal with them.
The state has delegated the formulation of problems to the national communities. But it does not want to change much, being wary of opposition.
Naturally, state systems (and not only here, but in many other countries) are slow. It reacts more slowly than public or private organizations.
But if we really want to make reforms, the start should be at least the formulation of goals in some document. And of course, research into what problems we actually have.
Especially in the field of human rights, of which the rights of national minorities are an integral part.
This should be a continuous process. In other words, even if you invest all the resources to improve the situation, there will always be new challenges that you have to solve.
And if we don’t do it, the movement will be purely inertial, and the problems will always accumulate and there won’t be platforms and environments where they can be raised.
As a result, the problems will remain unsolved for so long that the very existence of these problems starts to become questioned.
And one day someone with authority will be able to say that these problems do not exist at all and everyone will believe it. And any other argument will become misinformation in the eyes of the public.
That is the vicious cycle.
Now, when you tried to talk about the problems of the Yezidis, you were labeled as a sower of ethnic enmity. It turns out that you can praise as much as you want, but you can’t criticize.
Naturally, talking about problems is not popular. There are people in our community who are sure that there are no problems. But problems do not exist in their eyes, because they do not want to see them.
People who have more limited opportunities, lower social status, and lower positions in society usually face problems.
Others may not even notice these problems. And it is natural that the one who talks about them is taking an unpopular step, which may not be welcomed in the eyes of all subjects of the environment.
And if instead of stoning them, the potential was directed to cultural or business projects, the result would be more significant.
The charge of inciting national enmity in itself opens up a great field for manipulation.
In reality, it is an article formulated during the years of the Soviet Union. In modern language, it is called hate speech, which has several criteria: it must be prejudice, a specific group of people against whom you are campaigning. You have to pursue a goal and the most important thing is to have the end result of your actions.
For example, if you tell someone to take steps after hearing your calls of hatred.
It is formulated in our criminal code that you must make a statement, appeal, or lead a campaign against any ethnic group and aim in order to cause or incite enmity. Naturally, there is nothing like that in any of our statements.
Is the interview the basis of the accusation?
Yes, the private conversation with a Yezidi journalist living in Iraq, who wanted to learn about the life of Yezidis in Armenia. It was a conversation on WhatsApp, which was published verbatim, although we had agreed with the journalist that it would not be an interview, but a joint piece that we would edit together.
The journalist later apologized and removed the interview, which remained published on the Internet for only two hours.
But some people not only managed to read it, but also downloaded and saved it.
Of course, the Iraqi journalist’s behavior can be considered unscrupulous, but he regrets what he did and is ready to testify in any state body (and in court) that he published a private conversation that was not intended for publication. But at least at the pre-examination stage, that petition was rejected and he was not given the opportunity to answer questions at the Armenian consulate in Iraq, even online.
The reasoning is that they are trying to avoid responsibility.
The role of media in this criminal case is very big.
The conversation remained on the Internet for only two hours. Even if there were calls in the conversation (which of course there aren’t), they wouldn’t be available to anyone in such a short time. A maximum of 200 people would have seen it. But some structures in Armenia started spreading misinformation about this conversation, and it went on for a long time, including two major TV channels, Armnews, Channel 5, and their affiliated internet media.
The wave was bigger than the occasion itself.
The activities of those organizations that already work with vulnerable groups were manipulated.
After that, there was no response from any state body, even about what the representatives of those vulnerable groups felt.
There are a few, weak media platforms in Armenia that are sensitive to human rights issues. Even those who are, do not have the influence to oppose the media that carry aggressive anti-human propaganda.
I think this is a serious problem in Armenia, and no matter how much international organizations help us, if we don’t have some impulse from state bodies that media platforms should be particularly sensitive to human rights and not manipulate them, nothing will change.
The media outlets have signed ethical codes.
The norms fixed in the ethics code of media will not work if the people in charge of the field, as well as the representatives of the highest authority, do not constantly emphasize and spread them in their texts and messages.
There are many norms that, although fixed, are not applied.
For example, there is a norm according to which the state should not prevent national minorities from speaking about their rights. But everyone forgets about that norm.
I think that this starts not only from the state system but also from the Yezidi community, where there are figures and organizations that our activities are not beneficial.
It is interesting that the text of my interview was translated by a person who is engaged in the composition and printing of books. And before that interview, we had done a journalistic investigation about the corruption risks between him and the state.
How far are you ready to go to demand transparency from the Yezidi community itself?
Now, due to the criminal case, we do not have much freedom in our actions, because under the influence of media campaigns, the society and also the groups we work with have found themselves in a vulnerable state.
It’s not ruled out that many people are afraid that what happened to me could happen to them.
And the greatest good from the state will be for us to simply dismiss this criminal case.
After that, you will have the opportunity to talk with various representatives of the community, many of whom are now acting as witnesses in this criminal case, and talking with them can be considered an opportunity to influence the case.
I think the state is falling into a trap by creating a very dangerous legal precedent.
The community will also have its say. If in reality, everything is good, as some people try to convince us, maybe our activity is not up-to-date and we should stop working.
After all, if the people we work for are not ready for change and fully adapted, maybe what we do is just activism that does not lead to real results.
But fortunately, as a result of our work, there are examples of positive change, which I think should be developed and for which the work was worth it.
In fact, if any journalist (for example, me) writes an article criticizing, let’s say, any Yazidi work, he can be accused of the same thing. That provokes enmity.
Maybe if you are not a representative of a national minority, you will not be accused of a crime.
But let’s not forget that even if a few people or organizations express their opinion unanimously, they are not the whole community.
Yezidis have more than 15 NGOs, and a very small percentage of our national minority is a member or supporter of these NGOs.
Many organizations may not function for a long time, but if necessary, they will wake up and make a statement.
That happened in 2012 when changes had to be made in the Family Code to make the marriage threshold 18 years old. Several NGOs of the Yezidi communities quickly became active and announced that this threshold should be lowered to 16 years old, which was against the principles of human (in this case also child) rights. This was written off and explained by means of national traditions. Meanwhile, of course, there is no such tradition. And if customs contradict fundamental human rights, then the human rights themselves become the priority.
But even then, the Armenian authorities heard the call of the Yezidi community and lowered the marriage threshold.
Is it difficult to change public opinion?
It is very easy. All that is needed is for there to be a few informed and knowledgeable people in the state system.
For example, there is progress in the field of education, because there are people in the ministry who know what is happening with the education of national minorities.
We just need to work, make the sector more active and attract new people, and change approaches to certain issues.
Interview by Nune Hakhverdyan