The Homeland Salvation Movement gained momentum this week after the announcement of a new stage of “non-stop” protests during a rally on February 20. Tens of thousands gathered in the streets of Yerevan beginning on Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to demand the resignation of PM Nikol Pashinyan.
Vazgen Manukyan, the candidate selected by the movement to lead an interim government of national unity, and Gagik Tsarukyan, leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, were among the speakers at the February 20 demonstration. “We must be prepared to seize power by rebelling with lightning speed,” Manukyan declared. In response to his statement a criminal case has been opened against Manukyan by the Prosecutor General’s office under the statute barring public calls for the seizure of power and the overthrow of the constitutional order, although no charges have been made as of yet.
On the morning of February 23, protesters gathered in Republic Square to prevent Pashinyan from entering the third government building. They were met with a wall of police officers encircling the building. According to initial reports, 57 people were detained following clashes with the police. One participant broke his leg during the arrests.
That evening, followers of the movement marched to the police building and the NSS building, shouting “Nikol Traitor” and “Armenia Without Nikol,” to protest the police violence from that morning. “We will not allow Nikol Pashinyan to establish a dictatorship in our country by relying on the police,” said coordinator of the Homeland Salvation Movement and Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Supreme Council of Armenia chairman Ishkhan Saghatelyan. “Dear police officers, I implore you, come to your senses. Do not serve that madman. Do not obey his illegal instructions. Stand by the people. Save our country.”
On Wednesday the young members of the movement organized a demonstration, storming Yerevan State University and the Armenian State University of Economics (ASUE), entreating their colleagues to join them. They clashed with police officers at the entrance to ASUE, but succeeded in entering the building.
A correspondent for Azatutyun, the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was attacked by protesters while covering the Tuesday rally. Opposition leader Arsen Babayan apologized on behalf of the protesters and condemned the incident, stating, “I consider any violence or hatred, especially against journalists, unacceptable and reprehensible,” he wrote.
Armenia’s media landscape was dramatically altered by restrictions on free expression imposed during the 2020 Artsakh War. These constraints inhibited journalists in their pursuit of objective truth while intensifying the spread of misinformation and disinformation. New pieces of legislation threaten to permanently institute the limitations on freedom of speech and press that emerged in wartime, without any promise of rooting out disinformation campaigns.
Armenia’s polarized media landscape has long been plagued by misinformation and disinformation campaigns, both homegrown and run by foreign operatives. The spread of disinformation gained traction after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, as campaigns arose to discredit PM Pashinyan and his administration. For example, two Facebook pages, Adekvad and AntiFake.am, launched a coordinated operation to disseminate unsubstantiated information and biased narratives with this goal. According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), these groups “masquerade as impartial fact-checking organizations to amass a trusted following among the Armenian public.” The lab also found evidence that AntiFake.am is affiliated with individuals or entities based in Russia. It is noteworthy that these groups additionally stoke attacks against human rights activists, particularly LGBTQ+ groups, and any Western-funded organizations.
One significant source of the spread of unverified information within Armenian media is a phenomenon known as “mushroom sites.” Mushroom sites are websites with unusual names, such as hopar.info, janhavesov.ru and desicdenic.ru, that are created and taken down after a short period of time. Rather than publishing original articles, mushroom sites reprint content from other media. The majority of visitors to these sites gain access through social networking platforms like Facebook.
The lack of access to reliable information during the war accelerated the spread of misinformation and disinformation. On the first day of the war the government imposed a state of martial law, under which media outlets were ordered to only report information from official sources. The absence of communication from the government amidst the state of crisis and uncertainty lay the groundwork for the return of longstanding conspiracy theories. For example, the day after the signature of the ceasefire agreement, a forged letter from July 2019 resurfaced from the PM to the NATO Secretary General alleging that he was prepared to surrender Artsakh to Azerbaijan.
During a web panel earlier this month hosted by the Yerevan Media Center titled “Anti-Western, anti-liberal attitudes in the Caucasus in 2020: In the Propaganda Kitchen,” associate editor at the DFRLab Zarine Kharazian commented that the reemergence of such conspiracy theories is understandable within the context of widespread anger and hurt toward Western disengagement from the Artsakh conflict. “A lot of conspiracy theories about the West, the United States and Europe in particular, in the context of the war, are popular because they’re based on grains of truth,” she noted.
Another wartime phenomenon was the rise of anonymous Telegram channels that spread anti-government disinformation that was then reprinted by larger media outlets. For instance, posts by Mediaport, a popular Telegram channel created after the war that publishes sensational and often false reports, have been shared on media platforms including ArmNews TV, Aysor.am, Blognews.am and Tert.am, as well as the aforementioned AntiFake.am. An investigation by the Fact Investigation Platform uncovered that Mediaport has a direct connection with the conservaive VETO movement.
The imposition of martial law aided in facilitating the dissemination of false and unverified information by creating an information vacuum that left the public susceptible to disinformation campaigns. CIVILNET’s Karen Harutyunyan criticized the constraints placed on journalists during the war, asserting that the “obvious truth was being hidden from the public under the restrictions of martial law,” further dulling the “public’s already foggy sense of reality.”
The lack of communication between the government and local media outlets has persisted beyond the end of the war. There have been several instances in which requests by news organizations for information from the Ministry of Defense or the prime minister’s office regarding issues such as the December 11 attack on Hin Tagher and Khtsabert, the occupation of Shushi and the destruction of military equipment have been denied.
Meanwhile several bills have been proposed since the end of the war that threaten to extend the wartime restrictions on freedom of the press through censorship. One envisions a five-fold increase in fines for “insults and defamation” to five million drams ($9,500) and 10 million drams ($19,000) respectively. Another imposes a fine of up to 500,000 drams ($1,000) for media outlets that quote as sources websites or social media accounts whose ownership is not publicly known.
A third bill, submitted by the Ministry of Justice on February 17, has been criticized as an attempt to quell criticism of government officials by unjustly curbing freedom of expression. The bill criminalizes slandering a person in public service in connection with their performance of official duties. Individuals convicted under the law could be punished with a fine of up to 3,000,000 drams ($6,300) or up to two years imprisonment.
A collective of media watchdog organizations released a joint statement denouncing the bill as a “logical continuation of a number of legislative initiatives introduced by the authorities in recent months that attempt to restrict freedom of speech and media activity.” “Officials and various politicians often perceive the objective criticism of the media as an insult, as slander, and try to take revenge through the courts,” the statement reads.
During a webinar analyzing the bill and its antidemocratic consequences hosted by the Yerevan Media Center, a senior prosecutor at the Prosecutor General’s Office Karen Amiryan defended the legislation as a necessary solution to end the escalation of hate speech in Armenia, asserting that defamation of public officials is an insult to the state. However analysts warn that the politicization of fake news to target political adversaries only undermines the freedom of press crucial to the pursuit of truth. Simultaneously such endeavors erode trust in genuine efforts to counter misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
Kharazian advocated for the formation of a regulatory framework that could combat disinformation while avoiding selective enforcement of the law against political opponents. “The problem is when disinformation or the spectre of disinformation is used as a political cudgel,” she remarked during the February 5 web panel. “Developing that framework will help legitimize counter-disinformation efforts and prevent them from being used by opponents as evidence of censorship or political bias.”