The challenges of Armenia’s media landscape
Journalists in Armenia continue to face a number of challenges. Ranging from high-profile court cases to international tensions, these issues have continued to shape a media landscape that remains fraught with problems.
After the 2018 Velvet Revolution the Armenian media landscape has become more polarised than ever. With a growing level of disinformation and fake news, it seems that the Armenian media is currently far from practicing what may be called responsible journalism. In the latest World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Armenia’s position has fallen slightly from 61st to 63rd place.
The latest report released by the RSF stated that “Media diversity has blossomed but the government that emerged from Armenia’s ‘Velvet revolution’ in the spring of 2018 has failed to reduce the media’s polarization.”
When Nikol Pashinyan took over as prime minister in 2018 Armenia was ranked 80th in these media rankings. As a result, the country’s media environment is certainly improving. Professionals have noted that ever since Pashinyan came to power there have been no direct orders from the administration as there were before. Under previous regimes, there were even some black lists that included politicians, media experts and artists that could not appear on broadcast media due to their political views. The main topics of the news agenda were largely dictated by the government.
Hidden ownership versus regulations
Broadcast media remains the main source of information for the country’s population of three million. According to a 2019 study of media consumption by the Caucasus Research Resource Center–Armenia, 72 per cent of Armenians watch national television channels on a daily basis. They also more frequently rely on television for information. Before the Velvet Revolution broadcast media was almost entirely controlled by pro-government political circles. As the government has changed, the situation in the country’s media landscape has changed and remained the same in equal measure. Now, the Armenian broadcast media is divided. Despite this, a large amount of the country’s media is still controlled by the allies of the previous regime. This highly polarised environment has only contributed to the country’s societal divisions.
Revealing the true owners of these media outlets in Armenia is now one of the main challenges for the field. Many media organisations are now trying to push for transparency with regards to these issues.
While Armenia considers itself a small country and Armenian society largely believes that the identities of these figures are obvious, there is still little official information with regards to these matters. During a January 2019 stream on Facebook Live, Prime Minister Pashinyan declared without evidence that 90 per cent of the Armenian media belongs to former government officials or opposition figures. A politically divided media that serves different political forces and closely follows certain agendas only damages the population’s ability to access objective information. Indeed, this situation amounts to an abuse of the public’s basic rights to unbiased and trustworthy information. As a result of fake news and media manipulations, it is not so easy for the average Armenian reader to understand what is truth and what is not.
Armenia’s current government is trying to overcome these challenges in the media landscape by introducing various new regulations. Of course, some media outlets have claimed that these changes are a form of censorship against those groups that criticise Pashinyan’s government. Various media organisations are subsequently trying to promote proposals that the body responsible for controlling the financial sources and ownership of the media should not be governed by the political elite. Instead, they believe that a more public organisation should be in charge of these matters.
In 2007, the non-governmental organisation Yerevan Press Club jointly initiated with the media community an attempt to develop a professional code of ethics. The Code of Conduct of Media Representatives and the Declaration on Election and Referendum Coverage Principles were the result of this ambitious initiative. As of today, the country’s new code of ethics has been signed by 63 Armenian media outlets. The initiative is also supported by eight journalistic associations. Despite this, many media outlets in the country still have not signed up to the code.
Judicial proceedings against journalists and media are increasing in Armenia. In particular, the number of lawsuits alleging defamation or insult has grown dramatically. For example, Armenia’s justice department reported 74 cases in 2019 compared to 24 in 2016. The lawsuits against journalists and media outlets are usually organised by politicians or businessmen. Sometimes even other media groups are responsible for these cases. Damages can involve fines as high as two million Armenian drams (4,000 euros). The Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression’s annual report in 2020 stated that there had been 74 new court cases involving media outlets and journalists․ The vast majority (61 of these cases) are related to insult and defamation, whilst the thirteen others are mostly related to labour issues.
Freedom of speech is under threat
Like many countries, Armenia registered its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020. Two weeks later, the government declared a state of emergency and extended it several times. Rules under the national emergency imposed fines on groups and individuals who posted information related to the virus that “does not reflect reports from official sources”. Although civil society representatives and journalists voiced their concerns over these restrictions, several media outlets have been forced to remove or edit their stories under the threat of fines.
Armenian media also faced numerous restrictions during the latest war in Nagorno-Karabakh. A decree adopted on October 8th 2020 banned the publication of information critical of the government, civil servants and local administrations. This exposed media to the possibility of heavy fines, the freezing of assets and the deletion of online content.
Tough changes affecting the functioning of Armenian media have continued into 2021. Pashinyan’s political team in parliament, especially the body’s Vice President Alen Simonyan, recently proposed the legislation “On Amendments to the Civil Code of Armenia”. As a result, the maximum fine for damages awarded in the case of insult will increase from one million to three million drams. In the case of defamation, it will now be possible to claim six million drams instead of two million.
Civil society in Armenia criticised the bill on the grounds that it could easily be used by politicians as a means of pressuring independent media organisations. However, on October 5th the country’s constitutional court announced that the law was compatible with the constitution.
As a result, the country’s media has experienced numerous challenges, including a pandemic, post-war uncertainty and numerous government restrictions. Despite this, the Armenian press is still home to various media outlets and journalists that continue to help citizens access unbiased and objective information.
Alina Nahapetyan is an Armenian journalist. She graduated from Yerevan State University and currently a student at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw, Poland. She has been working as a journalist for the various Armenian television channels and media outlets since 2014 mainly covering human rights issues, domestic violence, politics, and EU-Armenia relations.
This article is part of a project titled “Freedom of speech under duress – today’s experiences and their consequences“ co-financed by the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
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