Journalists and civil society representatives in Armenia have voiced their concerns over the restrictions on media imposed under the terms of the coronavirus-conditioned national emergency, calling on the government to “stop the censorship.”
Under the state-of-emergency rule introduced by the Armenian government on March 16, media as well as social media users in Armenia face administrative fines for posting information on the coronavirus-related situation that “does not reflect reports from official sources.” The government said the measure was needed to prevent “panic-mongering” during the 30-day period of the national emergency declared to slow down and contain the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.
Two media outlets – the Aravot and Hraparak dailies – have already been forced to remove or edit their stories under penalty of fines between 500,000 and 800,000 drams ($1,000-$1,600).
Hraparak was warned over its article about complaints of prison inmates that the newspaper claims had no connection to the coronavirus situation. The daily still removed the story, but warned that it would take some action if warned again. In a Facebook post Hraparak’s editor wrote: “The state of emergency has been introduced to put media in a straight-jacket.”
After a police warning Aravot.am also edited its story that mentioned a reported concealment of coronavirus cases in Russia. Anna Israyelian, the editor of Aravot.am, noted that in a Facebook post Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian had made a comment “consonant with that report”, as he mentioned that “some countries do not provide actual figures on the coronavirus.”
“Although the demand of the authorities is absolutely groundless, because I don’t think that a report about [coronavirus] cases being hidden in Russia would cause panic in Armenian society, considering that in this delicate situation we deal with a healthcare-related document, we decided not to go against the demand and edited the story on our website,” Israyelian said.
The editor described the government’s response as inadequate. She said that in conditions of the absence of clear criteria for “panic-mongering”, it leaves room for arbitrary action against media.
Israyelian urged the authorities to reconsider their approach. “I don’t think that forcing the media to remain silent and hide the facts not only about what is happening inside the country but also about what is happening abroad will improve the situation of those infected,” she said.
Daniel Ioannisian, a representative of the Union of Informed Citizens NGO, described what is being applied in relation to media during the state of emergency as “censorship”, which he said leads to such negative consequences as the decrease in trust in the information provided by the government.
Ioannisian said that most democratic governments in the world that have declared national emergencies over the coronavirus pandemic have refrained from censoring their media.
“In democratic countries the media must not be under censorship and restrictions,” said Ioannisian, calling on the government to lift the restrictions imposed on the media.