2020 was the toughest and most difficult period for the Armenian media and journalists compared to all previous years of CPFE monitoring. This was due, first of all, to the large-scale war in Artsakh, unleashed by Azerbaijan and the difficulties of its coverage, and also the unfounded restrictions on freedom of speech in the fight against the coronavirus ever since the beginning of the year.
Both during the state of emergency due to the pandemic and during the martial law declared since the beginning of the war, an RA Governmental decree banned the publication of any but official information in the media outlets and on the social media, too. Moreover, the fact that the implementation of these decrees was controlled by law enforcement agencies, interfering in the activities of the media, often with subjective and arbitrary approaches, caused a lot of concern.
During the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus, 32 cases were recorded with the police demanding the removal of their publications and comments from the media and journalists. Fines were envisaged, too, however, they were not applied. The government, following the calls of journalistic organizations, first significantly softened the provisions of the decree regarding the activity of media outlets, dated March 16, and then entirely canceled them.
As for the restrictions applied in the conditions of the martial law, envisaged by the RA Governmental decree of September 27, the penalties were tightened by legislative amendments, and 13 media outlets were subjected to various fines. The RA Police did not provide the list of these media outlets, reasoning that the information contained personal data, protected by the law. In fact, providing the list of fined media outlets, the police would not reveal any personal data, as there was no need for it.
In 2020, the Government of the Republic of Armenia and the National Assembly came up with a number of media-related initiatives that were not always acceptable to the journalistic community. The most significant of these processes during the year was the adoption of a new law regulating the broadcasting sector. The previous Law On Television and Radio had long exhausted itself, hindering the introduction of modern approaches, and the new draft law developed by the CPFE and partner organizations and submitted to the parliament in 2019 was never officially put into circulation. Instead, three MPs of the National Assembly proposed a bill on Audiovisual Media, which was sharply criticized by journalistic organizations, as the document was not aimed at implementing reforms in the sector and would not contribute to the solution of existing problems. However, on July 16, the National Assembly adopted the Law on Audiovisual Media, giving rise to a number of follow-up activities, namely authorization of TV companies, followed by licensing tenders. Applications were submitted for 6 national, 9 capital-city and 8 regional broadcasts (it was declared that the tenders in Vayots Dzor and Ararat marzes failed due to lack of applicants). In January, the CTR shall announce the names of the winning companies through a rating evaluation.
The legislative initiative of NA Deputy Speaker Alen Simonyan, proposing to increase the amount of monetary compensation for insult and slander fivefold, caused serious concern in the journalistic commuity. This bill caused dissatisfaction specifically against the background of the large flow of lawsuits against the media, especially since the current amounts for compensation provided by law are already significant.
The developments around the amendments and supplements to the Law on Media, being improperly coordinated and very slow, cause a lot of concern, too. A relevant working group, established in the National Assembly, which the CPFE has also submitted a bill to, is handling the process. The law is very urgent, especially in terms of ensuring the transparency of media ownership and regulating the activities of online media.
During the year, another working group functioned at the National Assembly to discuss the criminalization of the spread of hate speech, but so far this process has been confined to heated debates. In the second reading and in its entirety, on April 15, the parliament adopted the package of bills on making amendments to the RA Criminal and the RA Criminal Procedure Codes, envisaging criminal liability for public calls for violence, public justification or propaganda of violence.
The new draft of the Criminal Code proposed by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Armenia was sharply criticized due to Article 450 on false denunciation, envisaging strict liability, even imprisonment, for publishing untrue information in the media. A number of journalistic and human rights organizations considered this amendment a threat to the media.
According to the reports published in 2020, Armenia has maintained its position in the international ranking of press freedom, but the situation in the country is not favourable, given the violations of the rights of journalists and media. The number of different kinds of pressure during the reporting year totalled to 273. 6 cases of physical violence and 90 violations of the right to receive and disseminate information were registered. The number of new court cases involving media outlets and journalists totalled to 74․ The vast majority, namely 61 of them, are on the grounds of insult and defamation under Article 1087.1 of the Civil Code, 13 are labor and other kinds of disputes.