Understanding the Background of Press Freedoms in Armenia

Corruption within the Armenian government resulted in a revolution that shifted the tides in the relationship between the media and the government. Armenia has been added to the list of countries around the world enforcing censorship behind “hate speech” and “fake news” laws.

Armenia is no stranger to conflicts between the government and the media. In 2018, investigative journalists uncovered mounting evidence of corruption in the government. The findings sparked the Velvet Revolution in April of 2018. The revolution was Armenia’s first revolt against the government since its separation from the Soviet Union. It was a seemingly peaceful transition to democracy within the country.

A key moment in the Velvet Revolution started with Armenian parliament member Nikol Pashinyan and his “My Step” protest march on March 31. His movement would begin in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri and was only composed of Pashinyan and a dozen people, mainly journalists. As they journeyed to the capital, Yerevan, thousands joined the movement in the two-week march.

The revolution gained widespread coverage within the country, with TV companies covering breaking news opposing the political agenda influenced by supporters of the corrupt government. After the Velvet Revolution, corruption in the media became a popular issue for government officials to address.

The revolution was influenced by the mass protests following Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement of his candidacy for prime minister. Anti-government protests wreaked havoc across the country in the wake of Sargsyan coming to power in 2008. Sargsyan’s presidency was the root of the country’s years of corruption. He was indicted for embezzling one million dollars of state money.

If it succeeds, the Velvet Revolution would be the first successful movement since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Three weeks after the protest, Pashinyan was elected as a temporary head of the government.

Starting in early October, the office of the news website Hayeli.am, was attacked for “Anti-Armenian” headlines attacking Pashinyan, now Prime Minister. The coverage was seen across the political spectrum was as an inappropriate attack against the press.

Since 2018, Pashinyan and his allies were successful in taking control of a majority of the corrupt government. Although some outlets continue to be loyal to the previous administration, many are fiercely loyal to Pashinyan and his allies.

Even with the gradual gains of press freedoms since 2018, the growing conflict between the government and media has grown. From 2018 to 2019, Armenia moved up 19 places on the World Press Index by Reporters Without Borders, ranking them 61 in 2019.

The Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression (CPFE) recorded 33 additional lawsuits against journalists in their third-quarter report of the situation in Armenia, to the 83 reported lawsuits in the first quarter. CPFE blamed the rise in suits to the fact that media outlets continue to be infected with hate speech, fake news, biased comments, and manipulation.

“In the post-revolutionary period, when the polarization and division of the media into political and financial camps became more acute, many media outlets turned into propaganda machines primarily serving the interests of their political sponsors and ignoring the public interest,” CPFE reported.

Armenia is dealing with “fake news” from well-known platforms hiding behind the right to free speech. Before Pashinyan came into power last year, many of the media outlets worked under former president Sargsyan’s son-in-law, Mikayel Minasyan. After the revolution, a multitude of Minasyan’s media outlets were sold to buyers still connected with the former authorities.

Out of all the outlets sold by Minasyan, the 5th Channel is the most anti-government. The channel covers a combination of political persecutions against the former authorities by the new government and the weakness of the new powers.

“5th Channel is a part of Kocharyan’s political campaign, it’s a propaganda tool,” said Vardanyan of the Media Initiative Center.

On October 29, the Armenian Institute of International Security Affairs hosted an event but declined to allow a handful of media outlets.

CPFE and the Media Initiative Center faltered at this discussion, saying, “although there is a reality in the Armenian media field where the media serve different political interests, non-governmental organizations should not be discriminated against, guided by their sympathy or hatred.”

It is unlikely that 5th Channel’s license will be renewed due to Armen Tavadyan’s arrest on suspicion of false testimony, and either bribery or coercion to give a false testimony. Tavadyan had been arrested because of his connections to the 2008 criminal case involving Varuzhan Mkrtchyan, a supporter of former president Kocharyan.

Pashinyan faces an uphill battle with 90 percent of media in Armenia being controlled by supporters of the old government. He is still fighting against corruption in the media. Through all the roles he’s had across Armenia, Pashinyan and his family still own a low circulated newspaper, Armtimes.

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