Armenian authorities appear to be using the South Caucasus nation’s military conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan as an excuse to curtail press freedom.
On January 6, the public comment period closed for a bill drafted by Armenia’s Ministry of Justice in late 2022. Once the ministry evaluates the comments, it can then decide whether to send the bill to parliament.
In the draft version circulated for public comment in December, the bill empowered authorities, under the conditions of martial law, to temporarily block websites, apps and social media networks and partially or completely restrict internet access in the country.
The draft did not specify any restrictions on authorities’ ability to take such actions or any way for affected parties to appeal the decisions.
The draft also authorized the government of Armenia — which has yet to agree on a peaceful settlement concerning Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, a mountainous territory that has been fought over by the two sides since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — ‘to intervene in television and internet broadcasting to disseminate information and ensure that films and programs feature exclusively military patriotic content’.
Armenia’s ruling Civil Contract Party has a large enough parliamentary majority to pass the bill.
Eleven local press freedom groups published a statement criticizing the draft bill on January 12. Media rights groups are concerned that once a mechanism for blocking websites and the internet is established, authorities will seek to gradually expand its use.
The broad, unrestricted powers the draft would give the government, coupled with the lack of transparency over decisions, could lead to politically motivated decisions. The bill is particularly worrying given the government’s intolerance of criticism during the war in 2020.
During the 44-day Second Karabakh War in late 2020, a government decree — one which echoed the policies of the Russian Federation, Armenia’s erstwhile ally — prohibited the publication of reports criticizing or questioning the effectiveness of Yerevan’s actions concerning the conflict.
This led to the forced shutdown of hundreds of articles and subsequent fines involving more than a dozen news outlets. Armenian authorities also blocked many websites with Azeri and Turkish domain names, as well as the popular social media app TikTok.
Armenia’s existing martial law allows authorities to confiscate media outlets’ equipment, establish special procedures for journalists’ accreditation, and “restrict freedom of opinion in accordance with the law.”
In July of last year, Armenia’s prosecutor general first proposed legislation that would empower the government to block websites, citing the need to censor harmful material such as instructions on committing suicide or selling drugs.