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.
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