Located in the vicinity of major authoritarian powers, the South Caucasian country of three million people struggles to keep its press free amidst regional conflict.
In less than five years, Armenia has gone through a series of historical events from a national revolution to a devastating war and accommodating over 100,000 of its displaced compatriots from Nagorno-Karabakh – a consequence of the country’s long-standing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan. Yet despite these challenges, Armenia has steadily improved its international freedom of press ranking. This also makes Armenia the only state in the wider region to have a satisfactory result of press freedom, as the countries around it unwaveringly go down the scale, if to a different degree. With lowering trust in the government and the media, how is Armenia maintaining – even developing – a free press?
A nation in transition
In recent years, Armenia crawled up the Reporters Without Borders (RSF)press freedom index by 31 steps. From the 80th position in 2018, it is now at the 49th, surpassing several European Union member states. Armenia now also ranks above its neighbors Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
The major breakthrough for the country occurred after the 2018 mass protests known as the Velvet Revolution. Days of peaceful protests and resistance led to the resignation of the government and an election won by the leader of the protests, a former journalist himself, Nikol Pashinyan. Despite his government's few attempts to hinder freedom of speech, the post-revolution press in Armenia has started to enjoy its freedom.
"The press freedom in Armenia is not being limited, however, it is not being regulated either. In regard to freedoms, this is a good indicator, but from the point of view of the information quality and fact-checked reporting, the picture is bitter," says Ashot Grigoryan, media and civic participation portfolio manager for Armenia's Democracy Development Foundation NGO.
Freedom of speech nobody was ready for
According to a 2021 poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, the media is the least trusted institution in Armenia. 52 per cent of the poll respondents said they "fully distrust" the media, a dramatic increase from the same survey in 2019, when this number was 15 per cent. The sharpening mistrust comes as a consequence of the extreme polarization in the country and in the media particularly.
"Freedom of speech has brought many new challenges to the Armenian reality, for which I am afraid we were not fully prepared," says Narine Safaryan, the head of the Training Department at the Media Initiative Center of Armenia, one of DW Akademie's project partners in Armenia.
Most media outlets are known for political affiliations or are owned or sponsored by political powers or actors with business interests, while truly independent media, limited in numbers and resources, have to constantly battle against financial hardships.
In light of clashes for power and lack of regulation for journalism as a profession, the media gradually lost its trust both from the government and the audience. This might also explain why – when the Armenian Parliamentrestricted journalits' mobility in the parliament building or did not allow them to enter the Yerevan municipality building to cover the mayor's inauguration – many voices on social media came to critique the low quality of journalism instead of condemning the authorities. As a result, the journalistic community is often targeted on social media, and subjected to hate speech, which goes beyond the public's relationship with the traditional media.
"It is worrying that there is no limitation on hate speech or incitement to violence. Even if a certain action [by law enforcement] is expected, it is not happening. This leads to [further] hate speech dissemination," NGO manager Grigoryan says, adding that in rare cases the legal framework to address hate speech is sometimes "used selectively."
Shaped by the conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed territory
The profound shift in trust followed a 44-day war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagonro-Karabakh in 2020. Armenia's unexpected and miscommunicated defeat left society feeling disappointed not only in the authorities but also the media, which under martial law was restricted from going beyond the government's official statements.
Consequently, citing security issues, some of the freedoms have been replaced with relatively repressive measures. Nevertheless, this did not change the overall picture of the freedom of the press much.
The regional conflict impacts the media not only within the country, but also makes journalists targets of authoritarian powers beyond the borders. In May 2023, an international group of internet watchdogs and rights organizations released a report on the employment of spyware in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, stating that at least five Armenian press representatives were targeted by Pegasus hacking software. The report did not specify which government used the spyware but concluded that there was no evidence of the Armenian government using Pegasus, while Azerbaijan had "extensively" spied on a "wide range of journalists" using the software.
In or inbetween an authoritarian club
The Pegasus scandal, as well as mounting evidence from Russian media and the Kremlin-affiliated media profiles synchronizing their efforts to stir the post-war domestic political discontent in Armenia, reflects the challenge of building democracy while being surrounded by regimes opposing it.
The freedom of press, expression and internet rankings see three out of Armenia's four neighbors at the very bottom of the lists. Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey are among the most repressive regimes in the world, effectively placing their journalists behind prison bars.
According to the RSF 2023 index of 180 states, Iran is among the five countries with the lowest press freedom. Armenia’s other two neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan, are at position 165 and 151 respectively. Both countries heavily control the media and effectively silence dissenting voices.
Armenia's northern neighbor Georgia, like Armenia, has democratic aspirations and neighbors repressive regimes. Unlike Armenia however, it has seen press freedom decline in recent years. In 2021, unprecedented violence against a group of journalists while covering a Pride rally marked a big setback for the country’s freedom of speech.
As a former Soviet Union state, Armenia is also a member of several Russia-led alliances and organizations, where other members such as Russia and Belarus are known for being among the worst countries for journalists. And no matter how hard the Armenian government has been recently trying to distance itself from Moscow and its allies, developments in the region inevitably affect the country.
Effective civic pressure
Nevertheless, the 2023 Freedom House Nations in Transit report stressed Armenia’s continuous democratic gains. In documenting it, the international rights organization also acknowledged the role of the NGO sector and independent media in the democratic boost.
"There is a well-established community of media NGOs in Armenia and a harmonious cooperation between them. There is a consensus on very important principles and the agenda of NGOs. This is indeed an achievement," Safaryan says. She adds that growing polarization remains a challenge for Armenia's civil society.
In the three decades since Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the majority of Armenian NGOs focused on media development in the country have managed to build a network of media professionals who effectively observe the government’s relationship with the media.
"Civil society is one of the most established institutions, I believe. Even at times under authoritarian rule, civil society has always had to some extent an advantage in comparison with other states in the region," Grigoryan says.
Unanimity among the group of civic media organizations is often marked by their firm reaction to government actions questioning the freedom of speech in the country, as well as in addressing the government’s policy shortcomings. Such an example is the community consolidation over a 2020 defamation law amendment which was to criminalize libel.
In 2021, the government criminalized "grave insult," saying the move was necessary due to "profound polarization" of society. Many journalists feared this would be used selectively to hinder free speech. The decision was met with harsh criticism from not only local civil society representatives, but also international rights organizations. A year after the amendment, the Armenian government cancelled the legislation, admitting that "even the legal restriction of freedom of speech should be implemented without criminal prosecution" - marking a victory for press freedom advocates and civil society in the country.
This article was funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Aren Melikyan and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Over the last three years, the EU-funded project "European Media Facility in Armenia" has aimed at strengthening Armenia's media sector. DW Akademie has been part of the project, partnering with the Democracy Development Foundation, BBC Media Action, and two local media partners, Hetq and Factor TV.