The second quarter of 2021 was a period of snap parliamentary elections in Armenia. This crucial political process was brought forward as a result of the heavy defeat of Armenia in the 44-day Artsakh war, and the deep socio-political crisis in the country afterwards. Both the extreme post-war tensions and the hot pre-election struggle were serious challenges for the media. The latter had to operate in extremely difficult conditions.
Most often, the work of journalists and cameramen was hindered while covering mass events. In total, during the quarter, 14 cases of violations of their rights were observed during rallies, marches, protests and pre-election meetings: physical violence, harassment and threats, various manifestations of intolerance and ill-treatment.
Attacks and pressure, as a rule, were targeted. Amid the political polarization of the vast majority of the media, the presence of a media worker adhering to one camp in the event of the opposing camp was already creating tensions, and contacts were often escalated into heated arguments and conflicts. Moreover, both the pro-government and opposition figures and their supporters, as well as journalists serving specific political interests, were seen in the role of provocateurs.
The rhetoric of election campaign, filled with obscene language, hate speech and insults, was in many cases almost invariably published in the media. Even journalists often used the vocabulary and style of their political sponsors, including on social networks. These relations, which began long before the election, resulted in the sharp increase in lawsuits against the media and their personnel: 23 such cases were accepted for proceedings in April-June, which is almost twice as many as in the first quarter of the year.
In total, during the period under review, the CPFE observed 8 cases of physical violence against journalists (9 victims), 43 cases of various other pressures, 15 violations of the right to receive and disseminate information.
The situation in the field of journalism became even worse when during the pre-election period Media Initiatives Center, together with foreign partners, launched a program to expose false news and disinformation in media publications with the relevant criteria, which Facebook and Instagram use to block access to these materials. Dozens of media outlets vehemently protested against this process, calling it censorship. Meanwhile, the majority of journalistic NGOs believe that the implemented program can play a healing role in the information sphere.
The steps taken by the authorities to remedy the situation are still ineffective. They are mainly aimed at adopting new legislative restrictions and tightening sanctions. However, most of these state initiatives contradict international norms and are not in line with a democratic society, as they threaten freedom of speech rather than create an opportunity to solve the problem of abuse. Therefore, for example, the RA President, after consulting with journalistic NGOs, did not sign the law adopted by the National Assembly, according to which the maximum amount of monetary compensation for insult and defamation under Article 1087 Part 1 of the Civil Code of the Republic of Armenia should be tripled, and on April 15 the President sent it to the Constitutional Court to determine the compliance of the document with the RA Constitution.
The draft law “On Making Amendments and Supplements to the RA Code on Administrative Offenses”, developed by the RA Prosecutor General’s Office and posted on the official e-draft.am website on April 7, caused some concerns. According to it, liability is envisaged for public swearing and insulting in an indecent form through speech, image, sign or other means via the media outlets or online websites. Meanwhile, the ambiguous wording and requirements of the bill can cause various interpretations and become an obstacle to sharp critical speech.
International organizations published reports during the period under review, too. According to Freedom House, Armenia has maintained its position in the Press Freedom Index. “Diverse, but not independent,” is the assessment in the annual report, published on April 20 by Reporters Without Borders, according to which Armenia has fallen by 2 points in terms of press freedom, ranking 63rd out of 180 countries in the world.