Armenian ‘Fake News’ Suspect Charged After Arrest

Armenia -- The entrnace to the to the National Security Service building in Yerevan.

An Armenian social media user highly critical of the government has been charged with incidting “ethnic, racial or religious hatred” after being arrested as part of a crackdown ordered by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The director of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), Artur Vanetsian, reported the arrest on Friday. He said that the suspect “hid behind” a Facebook page called “Dukhov Hayastan Open Society.”

The page, which has more than 2,200 followers, contains derogatory and even offensive posts on Pashinian and his associates. It 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.” “That’s a matter of national security,” he said, singling out “fake” social media users.

The NSS said on Tuesday that the suspect has been formally charged and remanded in pre-trial custody. It again declined to identify him or her.

The charges brought against that individual carry between three and six years’ imprisonment. The NSS did not cite concrete Facebook posts covered by a relevant article of the Armenian Criminal Code.

An NSS spokesman said earlier that the National Bureau of Expertise, which is part of Armenia’s law-enforcement system, has looked into the 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.”

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. She said 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.