photo by Mariam Sukhudyan
photo by Mariam Sukhudyan

“Local authorities are there to take care of natural and historic monuments, not to sit back while destruction and vandalism happens on their watch,” says environmental activist Mariam Sukhudyan with indignation. In October 2007 Mariam and her friends were visiting Garni, a first-century pagan temple in the Kotayq region of Armenia. Near the temple, there is a natural rock formation known as the “symphony of stones.” She witnessed local residents cutting away the unique basalt stones to use as construction material. Mariam took photos of what she saw in Garni, and upon her return to Yerevan posted them on her blog and sent them via emails to several different environmental activists and organizations.

Sara Petrosyan, a leading journalist at Hetq Investigative Journalists NGO and native of Kotayq region, immediately reacted. In a very short period of time, she managed to investigate who was responsible for the destruction of the monument, who was purchasing the stones, and why they were cut away. An article unveiling the story, entitled ‘Officials Endorse Symphony of Stones’ Destruction,’ was published in Hetq online only days after she learned of the problem from Mariam . But it was not only investigative journalists who took up the cause: simultaneously, protests were organized by activists and NGOs in front of government buildings and the office of the general prosecutor in Yerevan. A publication supported by activists and NGOs gained public attention. This added up to substantial pressure on the government to take practical steps to stop the destruction.

With financial assistance from the United Nations Democracy Endowment Fund (UNDEF) and USAID, Eurasia Partnership Foundation supported Hetq’s Transparent Local Self-Governance project from October 2007 until September 2008. The aim of the project was to increase transparency among Local Governments in sixty communities in five regions of Armenia. Hetq recruited a group of active reporters in those five regions and trained them to produce investigative journalism pieces. Their work was published online and in a monthly insert to a nationwide Armenian daily.

Hetq Investigative Journalists NGO (www.hetq.am) publishes courageous and hard-hitting investigative pieces in its own online newspaper, and those stories are reprinted in a number of popular Armenian newspapers, as well as the Transitions Online Internet Periodical, published in the Czech Republic. Their courage and excellence in reporting has not gone unnoticed: in September 2008, the Editor in Chief of Hetq, Edik Baghdasaryan, received the prestigious “Global Shining Light award” for outstanding investigative reporting in the direst of circumstances.

As a result of the NGOs’ activities, a kindergarten was re-opened in Voghji village, garbage removal was organized on a regular basis in several other communities, and a number of corruption cases were brought to the attention of the government and the public. After Hetq published a story entitled “The director of forestry has his own saw-mill” the Prime Minister of Armenia, Tigran Sargsyan, thanked Hetq’s journalists for identifying an important problem. And in the case of the symphony of stones, as a result of the early warning, not only was the natural monument saved from destruction, but it was guaranteed further protection: the government included the monument in its list of protected monuments.

“Hetq is always our first contact point when something like this happens, particularly in regions where we know they have local journalists working. They are very helpful in finding information and making that information public. Together we succeed in a number of cases, especially in publicizing problems in the environmental field” – Sona Ayvazyan, Executive Director of Transparency International Anti-corruption Center in Armenia.

The rescue from a tragic fate of the “symphony of stones” is a fine example of the power of cooperation between investigative journalists, civil society activists and NGOs. It is this kind of drive for positive change which Eurasia Partnership Foundation is proud to support.

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