Responding to strong criticism from journalists and media watchdogs, Armenia’s government has significantly eased its controversial restrictions on the spread of information about the coronavirus pandemic.
Immediately after declaring a state of emergency last week, the government obligated Armenian media outlets and social media users to disseminate only coronavirus-related news that are released by official sources. It said this is necessary for preventing false rumors and panic-mongering in the country.
The Armenian police have since accused more than two dozen news services of flouting these restrictions and ordered them to remove news stories from their websites.They have also controversially forced some Facebook users to delete posts critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Journalists, press freedom groups and opposition politicians have denounced the de facto censorship imposed by the authorities. They believe that the curbs on freedom of speech are unnecessary and counterproductive.
The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, also voiced concern at the restrictions in a statement issued on Tuesday. Desir said that while he understands the Armenian authorities’ desire to prevent panic independent news reporting is essential for “countering ‘fake news’ on the pandemic.”
The government decided to allow such reporting on Wednesday. It said the Armenian media will only be required to fully reflect information coming from official sources and to swiftly publish retractions or clarifications demanded by government bodies enforcing the state of emergency. Local journalists will also be free to cite or reprint relevant reports by foreign media.
Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech welcomed on Thursday the new rules for media coverage of the pandemic.
“Now that … media outlets can again operate in an unrestricted manner I believe that they will be able to collect information important to the public from their own sources as well,” Melikian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. He urged them to double-check facts and avoid reporting fake news.