Leaders of the opposition minority in Armenia’s parliament questioned on Friday a crackdown on false news reports and social media comments ordered by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
One of them, Bright Armenia Party (LHK) leader Edmon Marukian, expressed concern over the order, while admitting that slanderous and offensive public statements have become commonplace in the country.
“There is definitely concern regarding freedom of speech,” Marukian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I can’t imagine the methods with which it is possible to fight against fake news.”
Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Pashinian ordered the National Security Service (NSS) crack down on anyone who uses mass media or social media to “manipulate public opinion.” He singled out “fake” social media users making untrue claims on government policies or calling for violence.
Asked to comment on the order, Marukian said: “I can’t imagine how that is going to be done. When concrete steps are taken with regard to counterpropaganda waged against us I will welcome it.”
Marukian referred to what he described as online smear campaigns targeting senior members of his party. He said law-enforcement authorities recently opened a criminal case in connection with threats and verbal abuse reported by the LHK.
“Let’s see what happens now,” added the LHK leader. “But I want to say that fighting against that is very difficult. It also raises the issue of protecting freedom of speech and many other concerns.”
Gevorg Petrosian, a senior lawmaker representing the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), also complained about the “hooligan atmosphere” on social media. He wondered if Pashinian decided to deal with the problem now because of a “change in the correlation of fake news” which is not favorable for the Armenian government.
Petrosian also said that the problem must be tackled by the Armenian police, not the NSS. “The NSS has much more important things to do than to deal with fake news,” he added.
Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, echoed the opposition concerns, saying that his office will closely monitor NSS actions to make sure that they do not limit press freedom. “I want to stress that the monitoring will be at the center of my personal attention,” Tatoyan told reporters.
All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia about a decade ago.
Justice Minister Artak Zeynalian insisted, meanwhile, that the authorities want to target only those who spread offensive and false statements that “threaten national security.”
“If you look at separate instances you may not see abuse of freedom of expression,” he said. “But if you look at the bigger picture and see that that is being managed from a center and [those reports] are interconnected, they can receive such an evaluation.”
Zeynalian could not say just how the authorities will be combatting the “manipulations” mentioned by Pashinian. “We don’t yet have a formula regarding it,” admitted the minister.
Pashinian demanded the NSS crackdown after lambasting unnamed “former oligarchs” who he said falsely accuse his government of pushing up fuel prices in the country with its taxation policies.