The head of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said on Wednesday that the arrest of a social media user highly critical of the government must not be viewed as a crackdown on dissent.
Speaking to reporters, Artur Vanetsian again refused to identify the individual charged with inciting “ethnic, racial or religious hatred.” Asked whether he or she is well known, Vanetsian said: “I can’t tell.”
Vanetsian announced the arrest on Friday, saying that the suspect ran a Facebook page containing derogatory and even offensive posts on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and his associates. The page was most recently updated on Thursday evening.
Earlier on Thursday, Pashinian ordered Vanetsian to clamp down on “criminal circles” which he said “spend millions on manipulating public opinion through the press and social media.”
Vanetsian would not say whether the ensuing NSS investigation has already identified anyone financing the spread of “fake news.” “That will be fully clear when the investigation reaches a point where it will be possible to disclose its findings,” he said.
Vanetsian also insisted that the NSS, which is the successor agency to the Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB, is not targeting critical voices. He said it is only acting against public statements that contain “elements of a crime.”
“We are not taking about a fake page criticizing the government,” he said. “You can now see thousands of fake pages criticizing the authorities. It doesn’t mean that we must deal with that criticism.”
An NSS spokesman said earlier that the National Bureau of Expertise, which is part of Armenia’s law-enforcement system, has looked into the arrested suspect’s Facebook page and concluded that it contains calls for violence against “Armenia’s politicians and citizens.” The bureau also found “negative evaluations” of an unnamed Armenian national hero and an ancient cathedral in Echmiadzin as well as statements undermining “interethnic relations,” according to the NSS.
Some opposition politicians and civil rights activists have expressed concern about Pashinian’s order, saying that it poses a threat to freedom of expression.
Other critics claim that the Armenian government, which took office after last year’s democratic “velvet revolution,” itself finances thousands of anonymous Facebook accounts used for attacking and insulting Pashinian’s opponents. Vanetsian denied this.