Armenian media under attack or undergoing long-needed reforms?
Armenian media riled by new bill
A recent media bill put forward by the Armenian government is purportedly aimed at combating disinformation, but the opposition says it can be regarded as an attempt to restrict freedom of expression.
During a rally on February 25, 2021, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan, together with like-minded people gathered on the Republic Square, chanted “down with velvet!”, with ‘velvet’ symbolising the policy of ‘love and tolerance’ announced in Armenia by the new authorities after the 2018 revolution.
‘Velvet’ was then equated with the refusal to use repression in any sphere. But after the defeat by Azerbaijan in the 2020 war, Pashinyan and his team declare ‘an end to velvet.’
This expression fully corresponds to the attitude of the ruling political force towards the media. Why?
Back in 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, during a discussion of the government’s programme, said that 90% of media outlets belong to the former authorities, and this estimate has not changed over the past two years.
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The government and Pashinyan’s political team in parliament have initiated a veritable ‘parade’ of legislative changes affecting the work of journalists and media.
The latest example is a bill raised proposed by Vice-Speaker of the National Assembly Alen Simonyan “On Amendments to the Civil Code of Armenia”. It assumes a threefold increase in monetary compensation for insult and slander, which will amount to 3 and 6 million drams, respectively ($5670 and $11340).
Alen Simonyan himself, during the discussion of the law in the National Assembly, also made a mention of ‘an end to the velvet attitude…[which] is now unacceptable…freedom of speech should not be confused with rudeness and paid slander…Any resource that is engaged in rudeness or slander is criminal.”
Human rights organization Freedom House has responded to this initiative.
“It is a shame that the Armenian government encourages fines that can restrict freedom of expression and threaten the financial viability of media resources in the country,” the organization said in a March 26 statement.
More than 10 journalistic organizations in Armenia also responded to this initiative of the authorities. Their joint statement said:
“These changes will cause significant damage to freedom of speech and expression, the ability of media resources for objective criticism will be limited. In addition, it can be a signal for the courts and spur them to take more stringent decisions against media outlets.”
MPs did not accept criticism of the bill from journalists and experts. But it is no coincidence that the statement raises the question of the courts. The annual report of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression states that 74 media cases were considered in courts during the year. Most of them, or rather 61, were instituted on the basis of insult and slander.
The media community appealed to the president of Armenia with an appeal not to sign the law and send it to the Constitutional Court to determine its compliance with law.
Reactions from journalists
Over the past year, media organizations in Armenia have had many reasons to address statements to the authorities.
In just a year, there were almost such 30 statements, six of them related specifically to the legislative changes; there was also an appeal due to restrictions on the work of the press during the coronavirus epidemic.
Moreover, the topic of insults and slander is not limited to this change, which has almost come into force.
The prosecutor’s office has posted on the website edraft.am, which was created to discuss bills in society, another initiative, which provides for the criminal prosecution of insulting or defamatory officials of state and local bodies.
The prosecutor’s office offers for public insult or slander of a civil servant in the media or, for example, on social media, a punishment in the form of a fine in the amount of 500,000 to 3 million drams ($1000-5670) or imprisonment up to two years.
Armenian journalistic organizations reacted harshly to this initiative, stating that this bill is “a logical continuation of a number of legislative initiatives of the authorities over the past few months which try to restrict freedom of speech and media activities.”
Another initiative to establish new rules on the media field was proposed by MPs from the ruling My Step faction. This bill is better known in Armenia as “the law against anonymous sources”.
It provides for a ban on the use of anonymous sources; violators face a fine of 500,000 drams (about $1,000 dollars). And in case of a repeated violation, the amount of the fine is doubled.
An “anonymous source” in the bill is described as “a domain registered on the Internet, a hosted site, or a profile on an Internet site or application, the identity of the owner of which is hidden from readers.” One of the authors of the bill, MP Vahagn Hovakimyan, explains that by ‘anonymous sources we mean fakes”.
And by ‘fakes’ the representatives of the ruling force mean, first of all, Telegram channels, the authors of which are unknown.
In the post-war period, the Armenian media really has a mechanism by which information published in anonymous Telegram channels is disseminated in the press. However, they are not always false.
Sometimes there are blatant misinformation attempts, sometimes it’s only the half-truth, and sometimes it’s reality. The problem is that news sites don’t waste time checking the details of Telegram channels before publishing.
The authors of the bill explain that they intend to ban not the use of anonymous sources, but “advertising” of anonymous Telegram channels. Journalists can use information from these channels without specifying the source – as if it were their own information and media content.
This initiative also received criticism from the journalistic circles of Armenia. The human rights defender discussed the draft law with media experts and said that it offers “episodic” solutions that could cause serious problems in the field of journalism in the future.”
The appeals, demands and statements of journalists and human rights organizations have not yet influenced Pashinyan’s team. The bills have been put into circulation and step by step are approaching the moment of approval.
Armenia is still in shock after losing the war. People are disenchanted with state propaganda during the war. Official announcements, media publications do not inspire confidence.
This is proved by a study by the International Republican Institute (IRI), published in March this year, according to which 50% of the residents of Armenia do not trust any media at all.
The ruling political force does not have enough media resources for the internal political struggle, and it intends to fight for those who have not yet decided in news sources.
The new legislative initiatives are an attempt by Pashinyan’s team to establish new rules for the work of journalists and the information field. These rules may also be aimed at combating disinformation, but can be seen as attempts to restrict freedom of expression.