Armenian journalists face new rights, new fears

Serine Gabrielyan

This article has been updated to provide a more complete picture of the nature of the law suits against journalists. A more complete description of Hayeli press club and Hayeli.am has also been added.

On the surface, Armenian journalists are enjoying unprecedented freedoms following the 2018 Velvet Revolution. The country's media environment went from being viewed as "not free" by international observers to a lauded success story.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan appeared to usher in a period of unrivaled press freedoms. He used to be a journalist; his wife, Anna Hakobyan, continues to serve as the editor of a major newspaper. The two Reporters Without Borders praised the changes in its 2019 report, raising the country's media freedom rank 18 points.

Reporters Without Borders has praised improvements in Armenia's media environment but warned that new media outlets have become echo chambers for the Pashinyan government.

But today Armenian journalists complain they feel increasingly threatened and vulnerable, in part due to a troubling trend of police overreach and the readiness of politicians to sue over unflattering coverage.

Journalists and media outlets are facing an unprecedented number of court cases – in the first half of 2019, there were 56 cases against journalists and media outlets, compared to 10 during the same period in 2018.

Ashot Melikyan, the chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, notes that some of the spike in court cases is "probably due to the widespread hatred, fake news and manipulation, which are often presented as a criticism."

"Of course, there are also cases when an official is trying to take revenge on the media, so he applies to the court," he adds.

Over the last three months, there have been  33 lawsuites lodged against media outlets. Nine of the 33 were made by civil society organizations. The October  report by the Committee on Freedom of Speech and Protection underscored that "the unprecedented increase in lawsuits is due to the fact that most media continue to be plagued by hate speech, Facebook news, biased comments, and manipulations."




There has also been an uptick in slander cases against journalists.

Aghasi Yenokyan, the president of the Media Advocate project, argues the sheer number of court cases – which include suing journalists for financial compensation – represent a new form of pressure on the media. 

He notes that some of the cases involve police seizing the property of media outlets, often for unfounded reasons. For instance, News.am was subjected to a police search after it republished a politician's comments from his Facebook live stream.

"This is additional pressure. The legislation clearly states in which cases the media should disclose sources," Yenokyan says, noting that it is "unacceptable" when the police seize equipment simply because an outlet is rebroadcasting what a politician said at a press conference

"They [government] are trying to silence the media…They hope the press will be afraid of it and become more obedient," he says.

Police are increasingly willing to raid media outlets and seize equipment, which journalists see as a new form of intimidation and pressure.

The cases represent a substantial threat for both journalists and media outlets. For instance, one alleged libel victim has demanded that a journalist pay approximately $477,000 after an unfavourable article.  Journalists, on average, earn 400 euro a month.

Yenokyan adds that the pressure appears to be selective, and media outlets that are seen as being anti-Pashinyan are suffering more. For instance, the office of an opposition-leaning media outlet, Hayeli, was vandalized after it published an article that was critical about a government policy.

"I fear that will lead to more violence against media outlets," Yenokyan says.

The president of pro-opposition Hayeli press club and Hayeli.am, Anzhela Tovmasyan, now fears for her safety. Her lawyer appealed to Armenian law enforcement to provide protection for her, but the request was denied.  “Any crime -- even  hooliganism -- if it is not condemned when it occurs, there is a risk that it could happen again,” Tovmasyan says.  “I am afraid that all this could happen again.’’

She says that the four people who attacked her office have not expressed any regret for their actions and have even boasted about it on Facebook.  “We saw they have many photos with the members of government, they don’t even hide it,” she notes.

An advisor to the Prosecutor General condemned the attack and said a criminal investigation was launched into the men’s actions. Armenia’s Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan also spoke out against the incident, calling it an attack against free media. But Tovmasyan argues the government’s response was insufficient. She fears that attacks against her website and other media outlets could continue.

“I am sure this is [a move] against the opposition media. I am convinced that this was organized by the government and sponsored by the government. I repeat that I am afraid pressure on opposition media outlets will continue.”

For some journalists, the biggest threat can come from media outlets themselves, however.

Armenian journalist Diana Davtyan says she has faced censorship at a previous job, when an editor yanked her report off the air after she asked a question he didn't like.

Journalist Diana Davtyan's report was yanked after she asked anti-Soros protestors to explain their position during an on-air report of a rally in June. The protestors refused to answer, instead labeling her a "provocateur" and an agent of the government. Then her editor called the cameraman and ordered him to switch off the live broadcast.

That, Davtyan says, was the "most troubling thing."  "He told me that I should have known that these people were friends of his and of our website and they should not be subjected to such questions."

She accused her boss of censorship; he accused her of becoming a political activist. Davtyan notes that her situation was not unique – editors are ordering journalists not to ask their friends "tough questions."



She notes that journalists are often under pressure from editors, who try to protect their friends from "unpleasant" questions.

Tirayr Muradyan left his job at sut.am after the editor changed his article to remove any reference to the criminal background of a deputy prime minister's advisor in July 2018 – just months after the revolution. He also found another job, as a journalist with the Investigative Journalists NGO. But he adds that he still has fear someone will try to find a way to pressure him to change an article lingers.

Journalist Tirayr Muradyan notes that the media environment has improved, but some officials still try to control what media outlets publish.

He notes that not every journalist is able to stand up to the pressure.

Ashot Melikyan, the chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, agrees that journalists are under real pressure. 

"After the revolution, the polarization process intensified and the media are now divided into political and economic camps," he says. "There are obvious elements of censorship -- we can see that the mass media are not able to operate unless they serve the interests of their sponsors."

Davtyan is now working at another media outlet and she says she will leave it, too, if anyone tries to censor her. But she notes that not all journalists have the economic freedom to quit and risk not finding another job.

“Many journalists are really afraid of losing their jobs and so they are subjected to direct censorship. They  often do not even have work contracts, so they can be asked to leave the job at any time. As a result, right now if a journalist asks a tough question, many people think that is because someone 'ordered' it," she says.

Davtyan now works at a different outlet but she doesn't rule out that editors will try and censor her work in the future.

"In addition, today we see so-called fake media -- the one-month-old mass media outlets that nobody knows, and no one knows where they came from. There is no record of their registration, no way of finding them and making them accessible. They can print any type of libel, call for violence, and no one will answer for it. And I am afraid that trust in the media is decreasing."

A new trend – officials using Facebook live stream to circumvent journalists altogether – is adding to the problem, media experts say.

During the revolution, Pashinyan frequently used Facebook live stream to address his supporters since TV channels were not broadcasting the anti-government rally. Today, he continues to use Facebook to speak directly to the public, as do members of his administration and the opposition.

The Pashinyan government has introduced a new culture of interacting with the media.

While they are more willing to speak openly about problems, they are also more likely to use social media to avoid journalists' questions.

While it is clear why politicians like Facebook live stream – it is a way to control their message – the practice creates real problems for journalists, notes Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression's Melikyan.

That means fewer press conferences and fewer opportunities for journalists to ask "tough questions," he says.

"Just because the media is mostly free from government interference, that does not mean that they are completely free," he adds.

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