Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said on Friday that it has arrested a person spreading “disinformation” on Facebook as part of a crackdown ordered by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
The NSS director, Artur Vanetsian, said that individual had opened and “hid behind” a Facebook page called “Dukhov Hayastan Open Society.” He declined to identify him or her.
The page, which has more than 2,200 followers, mainly contains derogatory posts on Pashinian and his associates. It was most recently updated on Thursday evening.
“There is a well-known Facebook page which spreads clear disinformation,” Vanetsian told reporters. “It is the ‘Dukhov Hayastan Open Society’ which all users know very well. The individual hiding behind that page has been identified and arrested.”
“A criminal case regarding the spread of racial, religious and ethnic hatred has been opened. Other details will be provided by the NSS press center,” he said.
Pashinian on Thursday ordered Vanetsian to clamp down on “criminal circles” that he said “spend millions on manipulating public opinion through the press and social media.” “That’s a matter of national security,” he said, singling out “fake” social media users.
“The instruction regarding fake users issued by the prime minister has been executed,” Vanetsian declared when he announced the first arrest in the crackdown demanded by Pashinian.
Some opposition politicians and civil rights activists have expressed concern about Pashinian’s order, saying that it poses a threat to freedom of expression in Armenia.
Shushan Doydoyan, the head of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information, on Friday criticized it as hasty and unfounded. The NSS, which is the successor to the Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB secret police, must not deal with mass or social media content in any way, she said.
“There is no clear legal definition of what information can be deemed manipulative,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “This [order] enables any state body and the NSS in particular to arbitrarily decide whether a particular report is manipulative or not.”
Doydoyan also said there is nothing wrong with citizens opening anonymous or fake social media accounts to protect their privacy. She argued that Armenian law provides for libel suits against anyone who makes offensive or slanderous public statements.
“Why do we want to complicate the situation?” said Doydoyan. “We must avoid resorting to any tough, crude legal interventions and creating an atmosphere of fear.”