The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government attempted to influence media outlets for favorable or uncritical coverage. Broadcast and many larger circulation print media generally expressed views sympathetic to their owners or advertisers--a mix of government officials and wealthy business people--while print and online outlets tended to be more critical. There were several instances of violence against journalists in connection with their coverage of elections and other local developments.
Press and Media Freedom: Broadcast and larger circulation print media generally lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors, who in turn were often close to the government. Broadcast media, particularly national television, remained the primary source of news and information for the majority of the population. Politicians in the ruling party and politically connected executives owned most television stations, which tended to present uncritical views of government policy and events.
There were instances of officials blocking press access to events and information. In March, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) local service was not allowed to cover talks between the secretaries of Armenia’s and Russia’s National Security Councils. When the Russian ambassador saw the RFE/RL reporter at the session, he reportedly asked why the RFE/RL reporter was there. Following that statement, an Armenian Security Council official blocked the RFE/RL crew from entering the hotel while allowing six other outlets (three Armenian and three Russian) to cover the event.
Independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived through international donations, with limited or no revenues from commercials. Advertisers often shied away from advertising on sites critical of the government, seeing such support as risking official harassment.
According to media experts, the dominant positions in the television and online advertising market of a few companies limited diversity of opinions. According to a report presented in September 2016 by the Armenian Center for Political and International Studies, the advertising sales house Media International Services (MIS) controlled 74 percent of the country’s television advertisement gross value, with exclusive rights to sell advertising on the country’s five most watched channels. Another company, DG Sales, was majority owned by MIS shareholders and controlled more than one-third of the online commercial market, operating in a manner similar to MIS.
Regional television channels provided some alternative viewpoints, often through externally produced content. By the end of the year, however, 10 regional television stations faced risk of closure due to the mandatory transition from analog to digital broadcasting in October 2016. Although amended legislation allowed regional stations that did not have licenses to broadcast via the state-funded public multiplex to continue their analog broadcasts until a private multiplex entered the market, the requirements established for a private multiplex were too prohibitive for any company to bid. The affected regional stations remained available to a smaller audience through cable, but they faced serious financial strains due to a loss of commercial revenues.
The government did not generally control the content of online media, which together with social media, served as an important alternative source of information and diverse political opinions. Online news outlets nevertheless continued to show increasing signs of influence by politically connected owners and advertisers. There were credible reports that both online and broadcast media were in the hands of a few government-affiliated individuals. Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent.
Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of violence and professional intimidation against journalists during the April 2 parliamentary and May 14 Yerevan municipal election campaigns. Investigations were underway into cases from 2016, when police targeted journalists covering public protests, subjected them to violence, and deliberately destroyed their professional equipment. Authorities did not charge any police officers with violence against journalists in those incidents. Media watchdog groups criticized the slow pace and ineffectiveness of investigations, despite the abundance of audio and video evidence of police violence. While in the country October 6, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir emphasized the need for safe working conditions for journalists.
During parliamentary and municipal elections, several cases of violence against reporters took place. On April 2, for example, RFE/RL reporter Sisak Gabrielyan was assaulted inside the campaign headquarters of ruling RPA candidate Hakob Beglaryan after he went inside and tried to film the premises, having noticed people leaving the headquarters with what appeared to be bribes. Later that day Araratnews journalist Shoghik Galstyan and Sisak Gabrielyan were assaulted near the same headquarters while making similar reporting efforts. Beglaryan’s supporters reportedly beat them and took away their video equipment. The SIS decided not to open an investigation into the incident involving Gabrielyan inside the campaign office, concluding that the reporter did not have a right to enter the building. Law enforcement officials also suggested that the money distributed inside the campaign office were salaries, not election bribes. The SIS, however, opened a criminal case in the second incident involving the Araratnews reporter. Authorities charged two individuals, Levon Gasparyan and Julieta Kokolyan, with using violence against the reporters and preventing them from performing their professional activity. As of year’s end, the case was pending in court.
On July 28, nine prominent media watchdog organizations publicly denounced the slow pace of official investigations into the abuse of journalists during a rally of persons who sympathized with the demands of the Sasna Tsrer armed group in July 2016. The nine organizations asserted police officers and civilians targeted 27 journalists and camera operators from various media outlets, that police used physical violence against 19 of them, and prevented eight others from performing their professional activity. The action also involved the deliberate damaging of the journalists’ photo and video equipment, seizure of memory cards, and destruction of video footage. While charges were brought against eight civilians, as of year’s end, authorities had not brought charges against any law enforcement officer involved in the action. Those identified by the public as having participated in the action included the head of security for national Chief of Police Vladimir Gasparyan and two of Gasparyan’s personal bodyguards. In December 2016 President Sargsyan awarded a medal to the national chief of the internal police troops, Levon Yeranosyan, who allegedly gave the order to disperse the protesters forcibly, for “excellent maintenance of public order.”
On September 28, Narine Avetisyan, the editor in chief of Lori television, was attacked while filming a video of asphalting work being carried out in a heavy rain. According to Avetisyan, Tigran Nazaryan, the head of the Shinpuls construction company doing the work, and his employees used violence to seize Avetisyan’s mobile telephone and throw her to the ground. According to Avetisyan, this was the fifth such incident against her, and in none of the previous cases had authorities brought the perpetrators to justice. Human rights NGOs and the ombudsperson’s office condemned the violence and demanded a prompt investigation. The Investigation Committee opened an investigation into the case.
In August 2016, more than a year after police beat and detained journalists while dispersing a peaceful 2015 protest in downtown Yerevan, the SIS announced it had charged four police officers, Davit Perikhanyan, Kostan Budaghyan, Tachat Noratunkyan, and Artur Ayvazyan, with obstructing the activities of four reporters. Media NGOs considered the charges inadequate, given that two dozen journalists had been affected by police abuse, which, they maintained, had been ordered by high-ranking police officials. On February 20, the court fined Budaghyan, Noratunkyan, and Ayvazyan 500,000 drams ($1,000) each but allowed them to continue holding law enforcement positions. Perikhanyan was fined 600,000 drams ($1,200) for deliberately damaging or destroying the property of others, causing serious damage; he subsequently lost an appeal of the decision.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media outlets, particularly broadcasters, feared reprisals for reports critical of the government. Such reprisals could include lawsuits, the threat of losing a broadcast license, selective tax investigation, or loss of revenue when advertisers learned an outlet was in disfavor with the government. Fear of retribution resulted in media self-censorship. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported on July 10, “undue interference of media owners into editorial autonomy resulted in self-censorship of journalists and discouragement of critical reporting of the government, including on public television.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Shortly after the NGO Union of Informed Citizens (UIC) released recordings of school and kindergarten directors involved in campaigning for the RPA in March, the progovernment daily Iravunk published personal information available only to law enforcement agencies concerning Daniel Ionnisyan, the program director of the UIC, and his family. While the Investigative Committee initially opened a criminal case into the leak, it was later dismissed for failure to identify the alleged perpetrators. With public support from RPA representatives, 30 of the school and kindergarten directors implicated by the UIC report sued Ionnisyan for libel and defamation, asking two million drams ($4,000) each in damages. After significant support from civil society for Ionnisyan, the directors withdrew their suits in July.
Individuals and groups could generally engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email. Some human rights activists and opposition party members claimed, however, that authorities monitored their email and other internet communications (see section 1.f.). On April 2, as voters went to the polls for a parliamentary election, unknown actors targeted some of the country’s leading independent media voices on social media. Four Twitter accounts subsequently were suspended after being flagged by their Russian-language profiles; the accounts owners also attempted to hijack the election’s hashtag to spread a fake letter about foreign involvement in the election. In addition, prominent academic and commentator Babken DerGrigorian reported two attempts to hack his Facebook account; Facebook allegedly informed him the attack was state sponsored.
The International Telecommunication Union estimated that 62 percent of the population used the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The administration and student councils of the most prominent state universities were politicized and affiliated with the ruling RPA (see section 3). For example, President Serzh Sargsyan was the president of the Board of Trustees of Yerevan State University. Government ministers led, or were members of, the boards of trustees of other universities. According to human rights observers, student councils in most universities experienced various forms of pressure to support the interests of the university rather than those of the student body and to keep the student body focused on nonpolitical and less sensitive issues. Despite this political influence, most members of academia felt they were able to deliver openly content that could be construed as critical of political institutions and processes.
In July organizers of the Golden Apricot International Film Festival canceled the screening of two LGBTI-themed films after negative public reaction (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On September 11, media reported that the Ministry of Culture had ordered the early closing of an exhibition, entitled “Eclipse,” at the House Museum of Tumanyan that was devoted to the victims of the political repressions in the country during the Stalin era. The closing created a significant reaction in society, to which the Ministry of Culture and other officials responded that the exhibition was too “political” and that it had not been “sanctioned” by the ministry.