The Armenian media: less free than it seems?
29 September 2016

In the second in a series of articles about the media landscape in the South Caucasus Joseph d'Urso reports from Armenia where press censorship is rare, but where the authorites have found other means to manage and influence public opinion


The media in Armenia is significantly freer than in many neighbouring countries. Overt censorship and intimidation is rare these days.

But the press is influenced in more subtle ways. Tycoons and government-friendly journalists collaborate, and self-censorship and financial chicanery combine, to form a media landscape less free than things might seem on the surface.

Government manipulation of journalists in Armenia is "very clever", says Gayane Abrahamyan, who hosts a current affairs show on Yerkir TV.

Broadcasters are often pushed not to invite certain guests, such as activists and opposition politician politicians, she says.

"It's really difficult to work in TV because there is so much pressure."

She is keen to point out that the situation is far better than in Azerbaijan, where there is direct persecution of journalists, but does not think enlightened pluralism is the reason for this. "Self-censorship means there is no need for [direct censorship]."

People close to the Armenian government control most national TV networks, be it explicitly or implicitly, says Boris Navasardian of Yerevan Press Club. This explains the tempered television coverage of the Erebuni siege, carried out by anti-government gunmen in July.

Several journalists working for alternative media outlets told Commonspace  a relative of the President, exerts control through the conglomerate PanArmenian Media Group.

There are also unsubstantiated rumours the government pays people to make supportive comments online, or write negative posts about opponents.  (Investigations have shown this is common practice in Russia and Turkey.)

In general, online media is more critical of the government. It is harder to control. The Daredevils of Sassoun or 'Sansa Tsrer', the group who carried out the siege of Erebuni police station in July, were described as 'terrorists' by TV media. Online media was more likely to paint them as heroes.

Many educated young people in Yerevan reject TV news entirely, considering it government propaganda. But outside the capital, especially among the older generations, it is the main source of information.

Russian channels are also popular, though ties between Armenia and Russia are fraying under the strain of Russia's complex game in Nagorno-Karabakh, where it arms both Armenia and its enemy, Azerbaijan.

While the strands of Armenian media which are under government influence operates fairly freely in normal times, control increases during crises that threaten the regime, like the war in April and the siege in July. "Last year there was much more independence," says TV host Abrahamyan.

One of the main online outlets which regularly criticizes the government is Hetq.  "[The government] is afraid of questions," says deputy editor Liana Sayadyan, who thinks the situation has got worse since Robert Kocharian's time as president

The shooting of unarmed protestors in March 2008, just at the time Kocharian was replaced by Serzh Sargsyan, led to a souring of relations between Armenia's people and its government.

While the country is still bound tightly together, by ethnicity, history and war, the government is still blamed for those shootings (as well as for underequipping troops during the April four-day war).

There is a seething discontent beneath the tranquil surface of Armenian politics. This discontent bubbled over in the "Electric Yerevan" protests last year, and in support for the Erebuni protestors. 

President Sargsyan, runs a tight media operation, and rarely speaks to journalists.

Liana Sayadyan of Hetq says only friendly journalists are welcome at government press conferences, meaning only from TV channels, not the more critical online outlets like her own.

After the Erebuni siege, Sargsyan said nothing for days, sparking confusion and anger.

The president's frosty relationship with the media could be seen as a strategic mistake, a clumsy response to a young and connected population. But there is an alternative view.

"It is a clever move to keep quiet," says Boris Navasardian of Yerevan Press Club, who says Sargsyan is naturally cautious, and likes to wait and see where things are going before reacting.

"The same people who were criticizing him for keeping silent would have been criticizing him had he spoke."

Although the clunking fist of censorship is rare in Armenia, and independent journalism is thriving under a far looser regime than in neighbouring countries, there are still big barriers to Armenia being a truly open society.

"There seems to be no direct authoritative pressure as far as censorship goes," says Roubina Margossian, English content editor of CivilNet.

"But the crackdown on protestors and journalists alike on July 29 is a good example of the indirect ways the authorities let the media know the extent of their 'tolerance' for free press."=

Journalists were assaulted that evening just before the protestors surrendered, by men in plain clothes who some said had links to the authorities.

CivilNet is criticised in some quarters for being oppositional, rather than objectively independent. This accusation is firmly rejected by Margossian.

"Oppositional is a label easily given to any media outlet, organization, or individual who is critical of the regime," she said.

"When major TV stations are monopolized by the President's son-in-law and tell a one-sided story about Armenia, any other outlet covering an event from a slightly different perspective is easily branded as oppositional."

CivilNet is accused in some quarters of pushing further than it should against the government in some instances, under the influence of its proprietor Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister.

"I believe our content is enough to prove otherwise," says Margossian, saying Oskanian has no involvement in editorial decisions.

Questions can be raised about the funding sources for most media outlets in Armenia. But to some extent that is always the case in western Europe and the United States too.

Armenian journalists are eager to stress they are not living in a totalitarian state. They can do their jobs. They produce high quality journalism.

But subtle control is exercised, funding sources are opaque if not obviously corrupt, and answers are hard to come by. What impact do these murky arrangements have on Armenian society at large?

They tend to generate weariness more than fury, are more likely to drive Armenians to slump in front of the sofa than rise up in rebellion.

"It's tired apathy, and tired apathy leads to emigration rather than revolution," says Boris Navasardian of Yerevan Press Club.

This special report was prepared for by Joseph d'Urso

You may read the first report "Georgian media: diverse and ready to challenge" here