Turkey: Rights groups call for urgent release of imprisoned journalists and others at risk of Covid-19Turkey: Rights groups call for urgent release of imprisoned journalists and others at risk of Covid-19

Turkey: Rights groups call for urgent release of imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders and others, now at risk of Covid-19
As the Turkish government reportedly prepares for a large-scale release of prisoners amid growing health risks from the global coronavirus pendemic, the AEJ and other organisations in Turkey and Europe-wide call for the freeing of imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders and others whose health may be in danger. 
Amid growing concerns over the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, the Turkish government is accelerating the preparation of a draft law that will reportedly release up to 100,000 prisoners. This is a welcome step. Overcrowding and unsanitary facilities already pose a serious health threat to Turkey’s prison population of nearly 300,000 prisoners and about tens of thousands of prison staff. That will only be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. However, we remain concerned that journalists,  human rights defenders and others imprisoned for simply exercising their rights, and others who should be released, will remain behind bars in the package of measures as currently conceived  by the government.
The undersigned organisations call on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release journalists,  human rights defenders and others who have been charged or convicted simply for exercising their rights.  Additionally we believe that the Turkish authorities should re-examine the cases of all prisoners in pre-trial detention with a view to releasing them. According to international human rights law and standards, there is a presumption of release pending trial, in accordance with the presumption of innocence and right to liberty. Pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure, yet it is applied routinely and punitively in Turkey. The government should also seriously consider releasing prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, such as older prisoners and those with serious medical conditions. The authorities should ensure that all prisoners have prompt access to medical attention and health care to the same standards that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Prison staff and health care workers should have access to adequate information, equipment, training and support to protect themselves.
Under the current Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures, prisoners are eligible for parole after they have served two thirds of their sentence. The draft law that is expected to be passed in Parliament within days reportedly makes prisoners eligible for parole after they have served half of their sentence. Under the new law, pregnant women and prisoners over 60 with documented health issues will be placed under house arrest. Individuals convicted of a small number of crimes, including on terrorism-related charges, will not be eligible for reduced sentences. The draft law does not apply to those held in pre-trial detention or whose conviction is under appeal. The measure is expected to be introduced as the third reform package under the government’s Judicial Reform Strategy revealed last summer.
In Turkey, anti-terrorism legislation is vague and widely abused in trumped up cases against journalists,  opposition political activists, lawyers, human rights defenders and others expressing dissenting opinions. As we have documented in the large number of trials we have monitored, many are held in lengthy pre-trial detention and many are convicted of terrorism-related crimes simply for expressing dissenting opinion, without evidence that they ever incited or resorted to violence, or assisted illegal organizations.
This includes high profile journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, and businessman and civil society figure Osman Kavala, in addition to many more academics, rights defenders and journalists. Demirtas has previously reported heart-related health problems in prison, and both Altan and Kavala are over 60 years old meaning they could be at increased risk from Covid-19. These people should not be detained at all, excluding them from release would only compound the serious violations they have already suffered.
We, the undersigned, call on the government and Parliament to respect the principle of non-discrimination in the measures taken to lessen the grave health risk in prisons. The effect of the draft law is to exclude certain prisoners from release on the basis of their political views. Thousands of people are behind bars for simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Now they are also faced with an unprecedented risk to their health. According to its commitments under international human rights law, Turkey is under a clear obligation to take necessary measures to ensure the right to health of all prisoners without discrimination.
We invite Turkish authorities to use this opportunity to immediately release unjustly imprisoned people, and give urgent consideration to the release of those who have not been convicted of any offence and those who are at particular risk in prison from a rapidly spreading disease in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where their health cannot be guaranteed.
 

ARTICLE 19

Punto24, Platform for Independent Journalism

Amnesty International

ARTICOLO 21  

Association of European Journalists (AEJ)

Cartoonists’ Rights Network International (CRNI)

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

Danish PEN

English PEN

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Freedom House

Frontline Defenders

German PEN

Index on Censorship

Initiative for Free Expression – Turkey (IFoX)

International Press Institute (IPI)

IPS Communication Foundation/bianet

IFEX – the Global Network Defending and Promoting Free Expression

Norwegian PEN

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

PEN Canada

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Swedish PEN

Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project (TSLP)

Wan-Ifra/World Association of News Publishers

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AEJ accuses UK government of hypocrisy over restrictive policies on media access

The Association of European Journalists calls on the UK government headed by prime minister Boris Johnson to end at once its restrictive and partisan media policies. On Monday British political journalists staged a collective walkout from an official briefing arranged at Downing Street, the residence of the prime minister, in protest at a decision to separate out and exclude critical media on an arbitrary basis.

Under the new policy, as explained by the prime ministers’ aides, favoured journalists are routinely being granted special access to some press briefings a part of an “inner lobby” while others, including the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post, are excluded. When challenged yesterday  one of Mr Johnson’s aides reportedly said “we reserve the right to brief whoever we like, whenever we like’.

The prime minister’s staff had invited selected political journalists to a “technical briefing” on Boris Johnson’s plans for a trade deal with the EU. When other members of the Westminster “lobby” – full-time political journalists based in the Houses of Parliament – showed up as well, the group was told that only those who had been invited could go in and the rest should leave. All the journalists present then walked out together in a joint protest. They included the BBC political editor Laura Kuensberg, and the political editor of the Daily Mirror, Pippa Crerari who called the exclusion “sinister and sad”.

The Society of Editors, in a letter signed by the editors of all UK national newspapers as well as leading regional and broadcast journalists, protested at the denial of access to briefings to particular journalist and called on Boris Johnson to reverse his government’s practice of holding regular briefings at Downing Street instead of the traditional and more convenient location inside parliament. The editors expressed real concern that the changes would “hamper the workings of a free press”.

The AEJ’s Media Freedom Representative, William Horsley, said: “The UK government has laid itself open to the charge of hypocrisy by seeking to evade the robust media scrutiny of its actions by independent media that is essential in an open society, while it also claims to be acting as a champion of media freedom to the rest of the world.”

Last July the UK hosted a major Global Media Freedom Conference in London; and the UK has now assumed a leading role in a 33-nation Media Freedom Coalition whose publicly stated goals are to ensure that international and UN-sanctioned standards related to media freedom are upheld by the countries making up the Coalition themselves. The 33 states have also announced their intention to apply significant pressure on other states by diplomatic and other means to encourage them to discard repressive laws and practices that stifle of arbitrarily restrict press freedom.

In the context of the Global Media Freedom Coalition the UK Foreign Secretary Raab wants to ensure that the UK imposes harsh sanctions on individuals found to be responsible for serious abuses of fundamental rights. And last week, in a speech about Britian’s post-Brexit outlook, Mr Raab claimed that the UK would show itself to be “even better neighbours, allies and partners” through its membership of NATO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Among the Council of Europe’s foremost priority is that member states should exert themselves to create a “favourable environment” for free and independnet media to hold governments to account. 

In the six months since Boris Johnson’s government was elected it has provoked sharp protests from the UK media as well as opposition parties for its high-handed dealings with the media. The prime minister and his aides have imposed tighter restrictions on ministers’ contacts with the media and boycotted both the BBC’s flagship morning radio current affairs show, the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News, both of which are known for asking searching questions to  government representatives.

Mr Johnson’s communications team have also sought to bypass the mainstream media altogether to deliver messages directly to the public in their own way. Mr Johnson’s “address to the nation” to mark the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January was filmed and released by his own staff instead of by a national TV network. Number Ten Downing Street staff were said to be furious after the BBC and some other networks declined to air clips from the message in their live programmes marking the actual moment of Brexit last Friday night. 

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EJN members participate AEJ Congress in Paris

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EJN Secretary Nurer Zaman Bhuiyan attended EP Press Seminar

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Britain’s Exit Could Rejuvenate the European Union

By Llewellyn King

PARIS — There are those who believe when Britain finally shakes off its European bondage it will prosper as never before. This prosperity will be so compelling that the remaining 27 countries that comprise the European Union will follow suit in pursuit of riches. The end of European integration.

This is a view easier to find in Washington than it is in Paris or in London. There is a sense here of Europe Rising not Europe Disintegrating. Britain will still, despite the contrived case against membership, look to selling to and buying from Europe. After all, the EU will still be there: a huge market just a little over 20 miles across the English Channel.

Europe is beset with sluggish growth. The euro — the currency used by 19 of Europe’s nations — has been a mixed blessing, unable to serve hurting states by devaluing to increase exports. Yet it is the symbol of Europe, particularly to a new generation that has known nothing else and looks more to a united Europe than, perhaps, their parents.

These are problems but not insuperable. From what I heard here at the annual congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), Europeans feel that they really need each other, not least because they are constantly under a sophisticated and relentless attack of fake news and disinformation from Russia. Russia is a huge problem in Europe with fake information and even fake events, like the planting of disrupters pretending to be reporters or staged events suggesting a fascist penetration that does not exist. Daily, Russia endangers the truth in Europe.

The AEJ is, to my mind, as good a place as any to take the temperature of Europe. It is made up of working journalists, not stars or polemicists, but day-to-day reporters from across Europe, from Bulgaria to Spain and from Finland to Ireland. Collectively, they provide unique insight on the mood of Europe.

Rather than Britain’s departure (which nobody in Europe wants), here at the AEJ congress Brexit is regarded as the kind of misfortune that brings people together and leads on to triumph. Rather than Europe’s tragedy, here it is seen as Britain’s tragedy. And rather than Brexit being a precursor to the breakup of the EU, here it is seen as a precursor to the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Otmar Lahodynsky, president of the AEJ, says that England has discovered nationalism, as have Scotland and Wales — suggesting the inevitable breakup of the United Kingdom as it has been constituted since the Act of Union in 1707.

For Europe, the continuing problem is immigration.

While there are rich and poor nations, those in poverty will try to live in those with prosperity and migrate illegally. Not only has this been one of the drivers of Brexit, but it is also a massive problem for Europe, both the internal movement of people from countries like Poland to France, Holland and Germany, and from countries outside, especially Africa where people board unseaworthy vessels and risk drowning trying to reach Europe.

Add climate change to worries about Russia and immigration.

Europeans, much more than Americans, are palpably stricken about climate change and concomitant sea level rise. This adds to immigration pressure and free-floating anxiety about the future — an anxiety that is unifying, particularly for the young.

In London, once my home and now a bitterly divided place, there is agreement that new trade deals will not be written at the speed of a French train. People point out ruefully that it took Britain seven years to conclude a trade deal with Canada — and Britain and Canada l-o-v-e each other as mother and daughter. Who wants a deal with, say, the Czech Republic, with such passion? Not a tempting future.

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AEJ Statement on the draft media law proposed by the Albanian government

December 12 2019

The Association of European Journalists’ Albanian section expresses its urgent concern that the proposed new law on online media registration is a “direct attack” on the freedom of online media. We join the statements of 15 other associations and that of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media that this draft has serious defects that directly affect the freedom of online media.

The so called anti-fake news draft, whose stated goal is to stop the spread of fake news, child pornography and news that represent a risk to national security, actually reflects the demand for arbitrary powers to be assumed by the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama. The legislation threatens the fundamental rights of the Albanian public and is vigorously opposed by the media community and the associations that protect them.

15 associations of journalists have strongly criticized this new draft that is not yet voted by the parliament, considering it a great risk to media freedom and failing to provide workable solutions to issues related to fake news, propaganda, hate speech and disinformation.

The law has also been criticized by representatives of the European Union and the OSCE, who have called for less intrusive and wide-ranging approaches. The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe has stated said that the proposed stringent regulation of online media is not in line with the standards of the Council of Europe, so it is necessary to adopt different policies concerning online and offline media.

The official in the OSCE’s office in Tirana who has responsibilities for the media, Irina Radu has pointed out that many people benefit greatly from using online media because it is cheaper and less subject to restrictive controls. Earlier, the OSCE’s media freedom representative Harlem Desir called for a review of the draft law  proposed by the government.

We also welcome the comments made by the prestigious The New York Times newspaper which advocated a re-think of this draft legislation because of its likely damaging impact on online media freedom.

The law was drafted without initial consultation with journalists’ associations and was kept secret until a few weeks ago. The law grants the AMA (Albanian Media Audio Visual Agency) legal authority to fine online media based on third party annexes, to order the closure of internet portals in Albania without the necessary legal safeguards, or to impose fines of up to 8 million leke ( about 6500 euros). It even gives powers to AKEP, an institution whose head is elected by political parties, to shut down online media without a proper legal procedure at the outset of a complaint by a third party, which significantly increases censorship and the risk of self-censorship in the media.

The proposal to impose a 20% tax on online media and a 6% tax on television stations demonstrates the hostile intent of this initiative by the ruling part, towards online media which criticize  its actions. According to official data the traditional media TVs have the highest annual revenues, yet they are to be more lightly taxed.

AEJ Albania insists that self-regulation is the best solution for the Albanian media, because any political interference violates its independence and has a negative impact on the country’s democracy.

For these reasons it calls on the Government and MPs not to vote on this legal initiative but instead to withdraw it. Such a vote would risk inflicting long-term damage on media freedom and obstructing Albania’s progress towards EU integration.

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Finland’s press freedom under pressure from politicians and lack of transparency

Fred Krull

Finland holds the presidency of the council of the EU for the next six months.To find out what this means for press and media freedom in Europe, the ECPMF talked to Salla Vuorikoski, a leading Finnish journalist who reported on the “Sipilägate” scandal in 2017 and later resigned from the Finnish public broadcaster Yle after disagreements over journalistic integrity.

Find details: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/john.pagni%40gmail.com/FMfcgxwDqTXpDBgtVgpxZSNpcLKSdRxJ

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Global Media Freedom Conference in London aims to ‘improve safety of journalists’

The first ever Global Conference for Media Freedom was co-hosted by Canada and the UK on 10 and 11 July. Delegations from over 120 countries, including 60 ministers, and more than 1,500 journalists, academics and campaigners gathered in London to promote media freedom worldwide and to create new mechanisms to alert and respond to cases of violations and abuse.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that his aim for the conference was to work with his counterparts to agree on a way to protect media freedom and impose a cost on those who abuse it.

Along with his co-host, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, Mr. Hunt presented a Global Pledge on Media Freedom which commits the signatory states to “speak out and take action together”.

 

“Through a Media Freedom Coalition they would be harnessing the power of diplomatic networks to address emerging threats and opportunities”, officials said.

The list of participating governments is expected to be announced in September at the UN General Assembly.

 

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the UK will commit £18 million to improve media freedom across the world and £3m of this over the next five years will go into a new Global Media Defence Fund that will provide legal advice for journalists and safety training for those reporting from conflict zones. The Fund will be administered by UNESCO and contributions are also being made by Canada and others.

 

The UK has also announced that a new National Committee for the Safety of Journalists will be set up. Earlier this year the OSCE urged each of its 57 participating states to establish a national committee for safety of journalists which would bring togethe representatives of the prosecutor’s office, police and journalists associations to verify that all attacks and threats are properly investigated.

 

At the London conference, an independent high-level panel of legal experts, chaired by former President of the UK Supreme Court Lord Neuberger, was established.

The Panel of Legal Experts brings together leading international experts on media freedom, including judges, lawyers and academics, from all over the world. The renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has been appointed as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Envoy for Media Freedom, is among the members. They will be proposing legal and other initiatives to governments to help prevent and reverse media abuses.

 

At the Global Conference the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, together with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye; the Organization of American States’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza; and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Lawrence Mute, launched the “Twentieth Anniversary Joint Declaration: Challenges to Freedom of Expression in the Next Decade”.

This year’s Joint Declaration highlighted the proliferation of difficulties and threats faced by the media, including physical attacks against journalists, impunity, the impact of security policies on free speech, and the internet, digital media and media ownership issues.

The organisers of the conference declared it a great success but the gathering was not without controversy.

Index on Censorship condemned the decision by the UK Foreign Office to deny accreditation to Russia’s RT and Sputnik news agencies.

In several sessions, speakers and the audiences voiced concerns over making pledges that have so far not been followed up by concrete action.

On the eve of the conference, 33 press freedom and media organisations, including the AEJ, called on the  participating states to release all imprisoned journalists immediately, stop killings and attacks on journalists, and put an end to impunity.

During the conference, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard said that the continuing failure to bring to justice those responsible for the state killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year showed the urgent need for a UN-led supranational process to investigate such crimes. At the London conference she proposed the establishment of a standing Investigation and Accountability Mechanism so that the path to justice would not depend on the flaws of national judicial systems. She called on governments “to put their economic interests aside in order to tackle impunity and stand up for human rights”.

A report by AEJ UK member Firdevs Robinson 

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Juha Rekola on The Future of Journalism in Finland and Beyond

Helsinki, 15.5.2019: Juha Rekola, International Ombudsman for Journalists in Finland,addressed a group of members from the European Journalists Network in Helsinki on a topic which has been discussed since time immemorial but is now more relevant than ever.

Where are we now? The industry has been undermined and is in great turmoil with social media platforms taking the lead in what people read and how they interpret it. Scepticism towards the media has increased exponentially to the point where open warfare has been declared by an illustrious President across the pond. Reporters without Borders claims that 2018 was the worst year on record for safety of journalists and even countries that have traditionally been friends of the free press are now in decline. Hanna Arendt, the venerable American philosopher and political theorist, put it aptly:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. …”

This bodes for dangerous circumstances where crowd manipulation reigns as can be seen in the numerous right-wing populist parties gaining traction across Europe and beyond.

It takes the research of Rasmus Kleis Nielsen to shine a spotlight on the future. His 5 key points include (Authors are Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Meera Selva):

1.) Social media platforms control access to audiences where as before media organisations were the ‘gatekeepers to the news agenda’
2.) This move does not generate ‘filter bubbles’ as many would believe. Instead, our attention is driven by ‘automated serendipity’ which results in more diversity of information
3.) Journalism is losing the public’s attention and in some countries, their trust
4.) Business models for funding of media no longer work and together with the weakening of journalism, make the profession vulnerable to commercial and political pressure
5.) News is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism in many cases better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

It is not surprising that digital use is growing and revenues are amounting to 30 to 40% of the total. As we already know, it also provides more diversity but at the same time there is so much to sift through before reaching qualitative truth. It lies within the scope of journalists and publishers to manage content which speaks to the public good and restores faith by calling out post-truth and the harm it can do.

 

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The Media in Armenia One Year After the “Velvet Revolution”

Liana Sayadyan

A Velvet Revolution swept through Armenia in April 2018 and gave hope that the oppressive situation for the country’s media would be transformed. A year later the early optimism is tempered by evidence of a renewed surge of political influence affecting the media’s independence.

 In past years I have always begun my annual report about Media Freedom in Armenia by writing about the numerous acts of violence registered during the year against journalists and the slander, and many libel lawsuits filed by politicians and oligarchs against the media.   

But a“Velvet Revolution” quietly swept through Armenia in April 2018 and gave hope that the situation would change. The national movement — bolstered by years of media reporting about corruption and murky business dealings by government officials and MPs — brought thousands to the streets in peaceful protest, forcing Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s president for 10 years, to resign.

The first symptom of an improved environment is the decline in the number of physical assaults and cases of harassment against the media.

During Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” 18 cases of physical violence against media representatives and eight cases of impeding their professional activity were recorded. Criminal cases were filed in only 15 out of the total of 26 recorded incidents of violations of press freedom; only four of them went to court, of which the courts issued a verdict in only three. 

Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist and opposition Yelk party MP, who led the peaceful revolution, formed a temporary government in May 2018 and was elected prime minister in snap parliamentary elections on December 9, 2018.

Unlike the past, when elections were coupled with a spike in the number of violations of the rights of media workers, this time there were just a few such transgressions and the elections were held in a peaceful and safe atmosphere for journalists.

Cases of physical assault, which mired coverage of previous elections, were no longer the norm.

Nevertheless, there was no real change in the way law enforcement and the courts operated. They have been examining multiple past cases of violence against reporters that occurred in 2015-2018. These included the Electric Yerevan protests (July 2015), the events surrounding the capture of a Yerevan police building (Sari Tagh, 2016), and instances of violence during the parliamentary elections of 2017.

No significant progress was recorded in any of the cases. No new suspects have been identified or prosecuted, which proves the inefficiency of the pre-investigation process. Moreover, on September 25, 2018, the Special Investigative Service (SIS) halted the proceedings of the Sari Tagh incident, arguing that “the person engaged as the defendant is unknown”. Two of the journalists recognized as case-related victims, Mariam Grigoryan from “1in.am” and photo-journalist Gevorg Ghazaryan appealed against the decision by SIS to the prosecutor’s office, and after being rejected, they turned to the courts. The First Instance Court also rejected the claim of journalists and they turned to the Court of Appeal.

New Government and Media Relations

The first positive steps taken by the new government was to open government cabinet sessions to the press. These sessions had been closed to reporters by legislative amendments made by the previous government.

As a former journalist and outspoken champion of the important role of the media in strengthening democracy, Armenia’s new prime minister is accessible to reporters and often organizes interviews press interviews that are open to all media representatives without discrimination. In contrast, the past president never organized a press conference during his ten-year tenure and only granted interviews to  hand-picked journalists all of whom had a pro-government stance. Due to the efforts of Nikol Pashinyan the country witnessed the first live TV debate of the leading representatives of parties vying in the December 2018 snap elections.

Despite this, relations between the media and the government are far from ideal in the new Armenia.

Self-Censorship

Much of the Armenian media helped to mobilize citizens and so effectively drove the revolution through its coverage — especially the 24-hour coverage by online media.  Having taken such a clear stance at a key moment in modern Armenian history, in the initial post-revolutionary period the press refrained from any direct criticism of the new government. Many editors, in conversations amongst themselves, confessed that they were practising a kind of self-censorship, arguing that the new government needed time to take stock of the situation in the country and draw up a plan of action. Furthermore, the new government enjoyed a high level of public confidence. Its public support rating was high. So criticism of the new government was liable to be unpopular, and editors were concerned about a negative backlash from readers and audiences.

For these reasons, the press in Armenia adopted a “wait and see” approach in late 2018 and early 2019. Social media users attacked media outlets which criticized the new government, even calling on readers to boycott them. The new government did not attempt to stem this tide of intolerance or to publicly chide those fomenting it. The situation became so bad that Armenia’s Human Rights Defender made the following statement regarding the government’s neglect of the issue.

“It is very concerning that as of now respective state authorities have not issued an official statement in reaction to this phenomenon. Such approach is also dangerous in that it may create a favorable atmosphere for illegitimate interferences with freedom of speech of the media and freedom of speech in general. The concerns grow even further in considering that intolerance on social networks is constant and amounts to hate speech in certain cases. Pluralism must be always promoted, and one of its effective guarantees is that media are able to operate freely in the country.”

Redistribution of Media Ownership and Polarization of Media: Igniting Hate Speech

During 2018, and especially after the “Velvet Revolution”, a significant re-ordering of the landscape of media ownership in Armenia has taken place.  First of all the ousting of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) from the government led to an abrupt reduction or stop to the funding of their own media outlets. An important factor was the return to politics of Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, after which a number of media outlets were linked to his name. Of special note was the sale of the “Ararat” TV company, affiliated to RPA, which was re-born as “Channel 5” with a completely different political orientation. (Robert Kocharyan is currently detained on charges of usurping state power in Armenia during the March 2008 post-election protests in Yerevan that claimed the lives of ten people.)

Qariak Media, a new media company f?unded by four former Republican Party of Armenia MPs, has emerged after the revolution. It includes one TV channel (Armnews TV), one radio station (107 FM), one online media (Tert.am) and one social media platform (Blognews).

The current government does not own large media resources itself, except for the daily newspaper Haykakan Zhamank. It is a family business operation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, whose wife is the paper’s chief editor.

These media groups, serving the political interests of their owners, are pursuing an aggressive political PR campaign to divide society into opposing camps. They are also using their social media pages to foster the spread of hate speech.

Armenia’s Human Rights Defender addressed the issue in a public statement in which he called on the public, public officials and political figures to cease all attempts to divide society into supporter of the “old regime” and the “new regime”,  or to be guided by such divisive principles.

In short, former office-holders and public figures still maintain their control of important media resources. Reporters Without Borders, in its April 2019 report, said about Armenia that “The media landscape is diverse but polarized and the editorial policies of the main TV channels coincide with the interests of their owners.”

Fight for Transparency in Media Ownership

The political majority in Armenia’s National Assembly (the My Step Alliance that came to power as a result of the Velvet Revolution), seeks to make the media sector transparent by revealing the names of media outlet owners and their sources of financing. As it now stands, there is no law requiring media outlets to reveal data about their real owners or to publish financial reports about their funding sources.

In other words, without that and other fundamental reforms, journalists will continue to face severe challenge in terms of their editorial independence and the  transparency of media ownership.

Attempts to Combat “Fake News” raise fresh concerns for free speech

Armenia’s new government has already taken steps to combat the rise of fake news and the manipulation of information reporting. Prime Minister Pashinyan, at a cabinet session on April 4, instructed the head of the National Security Service (NSS) to launch a campaign against the purveyors of fake news in the media and social websites. “Yes. Freedom of speech and information is guaranteed in our country. But if criminal circles spend millions to manipulate public opinion via social networks and media outlets, it is a matter of national security,” Pashinyan stated.

One day later, the NSS arrested a Facebook user on charges of  “inciting racial or religious enmity publicly or by using media resources”. A few days ago, another Facebook user received a letter from the NSS asking him to  refute “information of a slanderous nature” contained in his post about the NSS director.  Various press circles in Armenia regard such government attempts, especially when they include the NSS, as unacceptable interference in the pursuit of freedom of speech. They regard such steps as a failed attempt to regulate the internet.  

“The new government must refrain from any excesses in its attempts to combat “fake news”. Its use of the security services for this purpose, followed by a social network user’s arrest, prompted concern”, Reporters Without Borders has declared.

*****According to Reporters Without Borders, Armenia improved its ranking in the 2018 Press Freedom Index by 19 points (from 61 in 2017 to 80 now). It must remain a priority for the new government to consolidate the reforms it has made so far and to ensure a safe and enabling environment for free and independent media, in order to raise the country’s press freedom rating higher in future years.

Liana Sayadyan, AEJ Armenian Section and deputy editor of the leading news outlet Hetq online

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