Internet freedom in Armenia declined significantly as a result of restrictions on the free flow of information the government adopted during the armed conflict between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The implementation of martial law in late September 2020 placed broad restrictions on the media’s ability to report on the fighting, including by banning speech deemed to endanger national security, permitting authorities to demand content removal, and mandating fines for noncompliance. A number of Turkish and Azerbaijani websites with .az and .tr domains were inaccessible for several weeks. Users also reported problems accessing TikTok. Prominent news sites also faced technical attacks, including distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, leaving many of them temporarily inaccessible during the conflict. In a positive move, a measure that had required telecommunications companies to provide authorities with subscriber metadata in order to facilitate contact tracing, adopted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, was lifted in September 2020 alongside a virus-related state of emergency.
The government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has pledged to deal with long-standing problems including systemic corruption, opaque policymaking, a flawed electoral system, and weak rule of law. Despite the government’s reformist stance, concerns about political interference in the judiciary and hostile rhetoric toward the media from government officials persist. In 2020 the country’s politics were seriously destabilized when armed conflict with Azerbaijani forces broke out over control of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Editor's Note: Nagorno-Karabakh is not covered in this report. Certain territories that are assessed separately in Freedom House's Freedom in the World report are excluded from the relevant country reports in Freedom on the Net, as conditions in such geographical areas differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.
- During the armed conflict between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, users reportedly had problems accessing TikTok and a number of websites with .tr and .az domains were inaccessible (see A3 and B1).
- On September 27, 2020, the Armenian government declared martial law, which limited the media’s ability to report on the conflict. The designation enabled the government to issue demands to remove content, and authorities issued fines to a number of media outlets and individuals under its provisions (see B2, B3, C1, and C3).
- In February 2021, a court ordered the two-month detention of a former government official for allegedly managing a pseudonymous Facebook account that was critical of the government. Evidence that he actually managed the page was scant, and he was later released after the ruling was overturned (see C3).
- In September 2020, the government stopped collecting users’ metadata and geolocation data from telecommunications companies. The data collection was part of a contact-tracing program, unveiled in March 2020 as a means of curtailing the spread of COVID-19 (see C6).
- Throughout the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian news sites faced technical attacks, some of which originated from Azerbaijan (see C8).
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||5.005 6.006|
Internet access is widespread in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and is expanding elsewhere throughout the country. The reliability and speed of internet connections across Armenia has generally improved in recent years. Most shopping malls, cafés, schools, and universities in Yerevan provide free Wi-Fi access. There are also public Wi-Fi hotspots in central areas of the capital, on certain public buses, on the metro, in some railway stations, and in some taxis. There are public Wi-Fi hotspots in other major cities, though not to the same extent as in Yerevan.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in 2020 Armenia had fixed broadband penetration rate of 14.5 percent, a 1.5 percentage point increase from 2019, and a mobile broadband penetration rate of 83.5 percent, a .9 percentage point increase from 2019.1 Per the ITU’s most recent data, from 2019, 66.5 percent of individuals had access to the internet, down from 68.3 percent in 2018.2 According to World Bank survey data from 2020, 96 percent of households in Armenia had access to the internet.3 Fourth-generation-plus (4G+) technology for mobile networks now cover 100 percent of settlements, per 2020 data from the Public Services Regulatory Commission of the Republic Of Armenia.4 Mobile operators have expressed interest in the establishment of 5G networks, but little progress has been made.5 Internet service providers (ISPs) offer fixed-broadband services through telephone networks (ADSL) and fiber-optic cables, as well as Wi-Fi and Wi-Max technologies.
Fixed broadband speeds improved during the coverage period, but mobile internet speed declined. According to data published by Speedtest in May 2021, the average speed of a fixed broadband connection was 34.5 Megabits per second (Mbps), compared to 26.8 Mbps during the same period in 2020, while the average speed of a mobile internet connection was 30.5 Mbps, compared to 34.84 Mbps during the same period in 2020).6 TEAM.Telecom Armenia announced that it would provide 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) internet connections for users in Yerevan in the second half of 2021.7 In the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 quarantine measures were in full effect and all schools went online, there were numerous complaints about the quality of internet connections, mostly related to the quality of video conferences. ISPs observed a 15–25 percent increase in traffic during this time.8
Four ISPs maintain fiber-optic backbone networks that connect to the international internet via the Republic of Georgia. There is also a limited fiber-optic connection through Iran, which mostly serves as a backup.9 In February 2019, the Armenian ISP Ucom signed a memorandum of understanding with ISPs in Iran and Qatar to build an internet transit link between the Gulf states and Europe through Armenia.10
The limited number of internet connections to and from Armenia present challenges in ensuring uninterrupted internet access. On September 21, 2020, Beeline, one of the primary ISPs and a subsidiary of TEAM.Telecom Armenia, announced that its optic cables in the Sevan-Dilijan and Ashtarak-Aparan regions of the operator’s network had been damaged by road construction work, which caused Beeline subscribers to lose access to the internet and negatively affected the quality of internet connection nationwide.11 Earlier, on March 22, 2020, users experienced disruptions for several hours due to problems with information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure in Georgia.12 Similar problems resulted in disruptions in early 2019.13
- 1“Statistics: Fixed Broadband Subscriptions,” International Telecommunication Union, accessed August 2021; “Statistics: Mobile Broadband Subscriptions,” International Telecommunication Union, accessed August 2021, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.
- 2“Statistics: Percentage of Individuals Using the Internet,” International Telecommunication Union, accessed August 2021; https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx.
- 3Siddhartha Raja and Gohar Malumyan, “Internet use in Armenia: How might connectivity shape access to opportunity?,” World Bank, April 22, 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/europeandcentralasia/internet-use-armenia-h….
- 4“PSRC 2020 Annual Report [in Armenian],” Public Regulatory Services Commission of the Republic of Armenia, 2021, https://psrc.am/uploads/files/%D5%8F%D5%A1%D6%80%D5%A5%D5%AF%D5%A1%D5%B….
- 5“Mobile operators comment on prospects of 4G and 5G networks in Armenia,” Itel, November 28, 2017, http://www.itel.am/en/news/9514.
- 6“Speedtest Global Index,” Ookla, accessed May 2021, https://www.speedtest.net/global-index/armenia; “Armenia isn’t ready for 5G – Ucom CEO,” February 12, 2020, Telecompaper, https://www.telecompaper.com/news/armenia-isnt-ready-for-5g-ucom-ceo--1…; Emil Avdaliani, “The US, China, and the Race for 5G in the South Caucasus,” May 11, 2021, ChinaObservers.eu, https://chinaobservers.eu/the-us-china-and-the-race-for-5g-in-the-south….
- 7“Team LLC to introduce in Yerevan New Generation Network,” December 4, 2020, https://telecom.arka.am/en/news/telecom/team_llc_to_introduce_in_yereva….
- 8“Impact of the state of emergency on internet traffic [in Armenian],” Hetq, March 31, 2020, https://hetq.am/hy/article/115341.
- 9Samvel Martirosyan, “The Problems of Armenian Internet Domain,” Noravank Foundation, January 12, 2016, http://www.noravank.am/arm/articles/detail.php?ELEMENT_ID=14326#1_b.
- 10“Connecting Europe-Armenia-Iran-Qatar: Ucom Exceeds Turkish Ones And Gets Involved In A Large Regional Project,” Ucom, February 27, 2019, https://www.ucom.am/en/news/2019/02/27/connecting-europe-armenia-iran-q….
- 11“Beeline Explains Internet Issues,” ITEL, September 22, 2020, https://itel.am/en/news/12319.
- 12“Ucom told about internet disruption reasons [in Armenian],” Armenian News, March 22, 2020, https://newsarmenia.am/am/news/society/Ucom-y-nshel-e-HH-um-/.
- 13“Ucom: Georgian cable damage causes internet disruption in Armenia,” News.am, February 4, 2019, https://news.am/eng/news/494368.html.
|Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?||2.002 3.003|
In general, internet connections are affordable in Armenia, though the cost of fixed broadband increased slightly during the coverage period. According to 2020 analysis from the ITU, the most affordable entry-level monthly fixed broadband subscription of at least 5 GB per month cost 3.2 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita, a .3 percentage point increase from 2019. On the other hand, the most affordable mobile package offering at least 1.5 GB of data per month cost 1 percent of GNI per capita, a .5 percentage point decrease from 2019.1 According to official statistics, wages have risen,2 while average prices for “internet access provision services” remained unchanged in January 2020 compared to 2019.3 According to World Bank survey data from 2020, there is “no significant difference in the levels of internet access by income group.”4 However, many lower-income households cannot afford high-speed fixed broadband and mobile connections.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, major ISPs and mobile service providers offered free, unbilled access to online educational and government resources, including videoconferencing platforms such as Skype and Zoom.5
There is a minor digital divide between large population centers and more rural areas. By 2020, 100 percent of settlements had access to broadband internet, with 51.5 percent having access to fixed broadband connections.6 The quality of service may be limited outside of cities due to lack of competition between providers. In contrast to the diverse market in Yerevan, some villages have only one or two mobile broadband services from which to choose. As of January 2021, all 1,003 settlements in Armenia were covered by 4G+ mobile networks.7
- 1“Measuring Digital Development: ICT Price Trends 2020,” International Telecommunication Union, 2021, https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/publications/prices20….
- 2Average monthly nominal wages, drams, Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia, https://www.armstat.am/en/?nid=12&id=08001.
- 3“Internet access provision services, Consumer Price Index in the Republic of Armenia January 2020,” Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia, January 2020, p. 14, https://armstat.am/file/article/cpi_01_2020-eng.pdf.
- 4Siddhartha Raja and Gohar Malumyan, “Internet use in Armenia: How might connectivity shape access to opportunity?,” World Bank, April 22, 2020, https://blogs.worldbank.org/europeandcentralasia/internet-use-armenia-h….
- 5Statements from mobile operators: “Zoom application in ‘PRO tariff plans,” Beeline, June 18, 2020, https://www.beeline.am/en/news/2020/06/18/zoom-application-in-pro-tarif…; “UCOM Mobile Subscribers to use distance learning tools without paying for internet,” Ucom, September 25, 2020, https://www.ucom.am/en/news/2020/04/08/ucom-mobile-subscribers-to-use-d…; “’Yev’ Tarriff Plan: ‘Facebook,’ ‘Instagram,’ and more top apps to use without consuming megabytes,” MTS, April 23, 2020,https://www.mts.am/en/Individual-customers/news/detail/2020/04/23/yev-t….
- 6“PSRC 2019 Annual Report [in Armenian],” Public Regulatory Services Commission of the Republic of Armenia, 2020, http://psrc.am/uploads/topics/15876281035176.pdf.
- 7“PSRC 2020 Annual Report [in Armenian],” Public Regulatory Services Commission of the Republic of Armenia, 2021, https://psrc.am/uploads/files/%D5%8F%D5%A1%D6%80%D5%A5%D5%AF%D5%A1%D5%B….
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||5.005 6.006|
Score Change: The score declined from 6 to 5 because access to TikTok was disrupted during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Internet shutdowns and blocks to social media platforms are not common in Armenia. However, some users reported restrictions to the free flow of information during the coverage period. On October 1, 2020, four days after outbreak of the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, state-owned Armenpress reported that TikTok was inaccessible to some users, while others had trouble downloading videos or watching videos they had already downloaded.1 The government did not confirm involvement, but issues loading the platform and uploading content persisted for several weeks. On September 8, Arman Tatoyan, the ombudsman of Armenia, called on parents and children to be extremely cautious when using social media networks and to avoid using TikTok specifically, citing calls for violence from Turkish and Azerbaijani sources.2 However, neither the government nor service providers confirmed whether there was an official order to block the platform.
In February 2021, the NetBlocks Internet Observatory, an internet measurement organization, reported a decrease in observed national connectivity to 82 percent of ordinary peak levels. The irregularity coincided with a crisis in which military officers had called for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over his handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Pashinyan in turn accused the army of plotting a coup.3 According to Artur Papyan, co-founder of CyberHUB-AM, the interruptions could be result of both blocking or dramatically growth of internet usage by Armenian society,4 although no restrictions have been officially confirmed by service providers or the government.
The government and the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC), which regulates telecommunications, do not interfere with the planning of network topology. Private companies plan and develop their own networks independently.
ISPs exchange traffic is routed through an internet exchange point (IXP) operated by the ARMIX Foundation, a nonprofit organization (see A5). However, under the Law on Electronic Communication, the government is empowered to assume “responsibility for the operation and management of any or all electronic communications networks or services” during a state of emergency.5
- 1“Հայաստանում չի գործում Tik-Tok-ը [Tik-Tok Does Not Operate in Armenia],” Armen Press, October 1, 2020, https://armenpress.am/arm/news/1029718.html.
- 2“ Azerbaijan launched aggressive military air and artillery shelling against Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh), including its peaceful population which are accompanied with massive hate speech towards ethnic Armenians: Arman Tatoyan,” Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia, September 28, 2020, https://ombuds.am/en_us/site/ViewNews/1311.
- 3Ani Avetisyan, “Political crisis in Armenia continues,” OC Media, February 26, 2021, https://oc-media.org/political-crisis-in-armenia-continues/; Internet disrupted in Armenia amid political turmoil and alleged coup attempt,” Netblocks Internet Observatory, February 25, 2021, https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-armenia-amid-politi….
- 4Interview with Artur Papyan, February 25, 2021.
- 5Law on Electronic Communication, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/documentview.aspx?docid=68804.
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||5.005 6.006|
The telecommunications market is reasonably diverse, with three mobile service providers and dozens of ISPs.1 There are no significant constraints on entering the market. In 2013, amendments to the Law on Electronic Communication removed requirements that ISPs obtain a license, instead requiring that they simply notify the PSRC before providing services or operating a telecommunications network.2
According to the PSRC, there were 183 ISPs in Armenia as of the end of 2020.3 However, three operators control nearly all of the fixed-broadband internet market. In the first quarter of 2021, Ucom reported 150,647 subscribers4 and Beeline reported 55,127 subscribers,5 while Rostelecom had 58,493 subscribers by the end of 2020.6
At the end of 2020, Vivacell-MTS, a Russian company, was the largest mobile service provider, controlling 59 percent of the market, followed by Beeline and Ucom.7
In October 2020, TEAM.Telecom bought 100 percent of the shares of Veon Armenia, which operates under the trademark Beeline.8 Acquisition negotiations began in December 2019, when Ucom sought the approval of the PSRC to acquire Veon Armenia;9 however, the company’s proposed takeover fell apart in May 2020.10 In June 2020, TEAM.Telecom Armenia, which was established by Ucom’s founders after they had a falling-out with Ucom management,11 announced their plans to purchase Veon Armenia. The acquisition was completed in October.12
Public access points such as cafés, libraries, schools, and community centers must be licensed if they offer internet service for a fee; free internet access points are exempt.13
- 1“Information and Telecommunication Technologies Sector in Armenia 2014 State of Industry Report,” EIF, https://perma.cc/EAS2-23YQ.
- 2“On Amendments and Additions to the Law on Electronic Communication,” Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?docid=83556.
- 3“PSRC 2020 Annual Report [in Armenian],” Public Regulatory Services Commission of the Republic of Armenia, 2021, https://psrc.am/uploads/files/%D5%8F%D5%A1%D6%80%D5%A5%D5%AF%D5%A1%D5%B….
- 4“Report on the Main Economic and Technical Indicators of Fixed Telecommunication Services for 2021,” Ucom, 2021 https://www.ucom.am/file_manager/reports/21-1-arm.pdf.
- 5“Information about Economic and Technical Indicators of Fixed Telecommunication Services for Q1 2020,” Beeline, Q1 2020, https://www.beeline.am/file_manager/Results%20&%20Reporting/telecom_arm….
- 6“Information about Main Indicators,” GNC-Alfa, Q4 2020, https://www.rtarmenia.am/images/statements/PSRC-4Q-2020.pdf.
- 7“MTS PJSC Annual Report,” MTS, 2020, https://www.mts.am/docs/default-source/psrc2021/psrc_report_arm-1q20.pdf.
- 8”TEAM comments on purchase of VEON Armenia CJSC,” Arka Telecom, October 29, 2020, http://telecom.arka.am/en/news/telecom/team_comments_on_purchase_of_veo….
- 9“Ucom requests watchdog’s approval for acquiring Beeline,” Armenpress, December 30, 2019, https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1000498.html.
- 10“VEON walks away from talks to sell Armenian arm to Ucom,” CommsUpdate, 7 May 2020, https://www.commsupdate.com/articles/2020/05/07/veon-walks-away-from-ta….
- 11“Yesayan brothers to create new company called Unet,” CommsUpdate, 23 April 2020, https://www.commsupdate.com/articles/2020/04/23/yesayan-brothers-to-cre….
- 12“Armenia: Yesayan Brothers Seek to Buy Veon Armenia CJSC Telecommunications Company,” Hetq, June 9, 2020, https://hetq.am/en/article/118092
- 13Article 43, Law of the Republic of Armenia on Licensing, May 30, 2001, with several amendments from 2002-2012, National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, http://www.parliament.am/law_docs/270601HO193eng.pdf?lang=eng.
|Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner?||2.002 4.004|
The PSRC operates relatively transparently, and its activities in the telecommunications sector are generally fair. However, the body’s past conduct—particularly with respect to public utilities like gas and water—has been marred by corruption.1 The body’s decisions are made during open meetings, in which the public can participate.2 The PSRC must submit an annual report to the National Assembly, but the parliament cannot intervene in its decisions. The PSRC tends to focus its regulatory activities on companies with significant market power.
The PSRC is assigned responsibility for regulating the telecommunications sector in the Law on Electronic Communication.3 Its authority, mechanisms for commissioners’ appointments, and budgeting principles are defined under the Law on Public Service Regulation Commission.4 One of the weakest elements of the telecommunications regulatory framework is the absence of term limits for commissioners. Commissioners are appointed by the president based on recommendations from the prime minister that are subject to parliamentary approval. Once appointed, commissioners can be dismissed only if they are convicted of a crime, fail to perform their professional duties, or violate other rules, such as those that prohibit obtaining shares of companies regulated by the PSRC.
Though industry self-regulation remains underdeveloped, three well-established nonprofit organizations have helped shape Armenia’s ICT sector. The oldest is the national chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC Armenia), a global organization that supports the development of the internet around the world. It has ceded much of its early regulatory role to the PSRC, but continues to maintain the registry of country-level domain names according to best practices recommended by ICANN, the nonprofit that manages global domain name systems. A second well-established industry association is the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises (UATE). A third institution, the ARMIX Foundation, was established by leading telecommunications companies, ISOC Armenia, and the UATE to create a local data traffic exchange point.
- 1Tatev Danielian, “French Water Operator Under Corruption Probe In Armenia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 27, 2018. https://www.azatutyun.am/a/29456213.html; See also: “One of the 7 officials bribed by Veolia Jur is now a minister,” Fact Investigation Platform, November 7, 2018. https://fip.am/en/4825.
- 2Article 11, Law of the Republic of Armenia on Public Service Regulation Commission, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=114423.
- 3Law of the Republic of Armenia on Electronic Communication, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?docid=1869.
- 4Law of the Republic of Armenia on Public Service Regulation Commission, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=114423.
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards?||4.004 6.006|
Score Change: The score declined from 6 to 4 because numerous websites with .az and .tr domains were inaccessible during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In general, content protected by international human rights standards is not blocked. However, some users reported issues accessing certain websites during the coverage period. Previously blocking had typically been limited to locally hosted content found to contravene laws on pornography, and implemented by deregistering websites using the .am or ․հայ country code top-level domains.1
From the second half of October 2020 until the ceasefire agreement on November 10, a number of Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets, and governmental resources with .az and .tr domains were inaccessible. Issues with accessing the sites continued for months after the ceasefire.2 There was no official recognition of the blockage by ISPs or the Armenian government.3 Also in October 2020, users reported problems accessing TikTok, though the government similarly did not acknowledge any blocking of the platform (see A3).
- 1“Policy of Domain Names Registration in ‘.Am; and ‘.Հայ’ Domain Zones,” Internet Society Armenia, https://www.isoc.am/file_manager/pdf/Policy_EN.pdf.
- 2“Main problems of Internet freedom in Armenia [in Armenian],“ Media.am, January 18, 2021, https://media.am/hy/critique/2021/01/18/25891/.
- 3Ruben Muradyan, “Started collecting network connectivity…” Twitter Post, December 22, 2020, https://twitter.com/RubenMuradyan/status/1341272907692077056.
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards?||2.002 4.004|
For periods in 2020 and 2021, the government enacted emergency measures that empowered the state to ban or delete content related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, respectively. Previously, occasional deletions resulted from authorities and nonstate actors using complaint mechanisms to prompt Facebook to block the accounts of political opponents.
The government implemented martial law by decree on September 27, 2020, when the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted. The designation placed a number of restrictions on media outlets (see C1, B3, and C3). As of November 9, when a cease-fire agreement ending hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh was signed, authorities had reported 401 articles banned under martial law, 196 of which were posted by media outlets and 205 of which were posted on social media. Additionally, 13 news sites, which police did not list publicly, were fined 700,000 dram ($1,430). One publication that refused to remove an article was fined an additional 1.5 million dram ($3,000).1 There were also occasional instances of police ordering individuals to remove content related to the conflict. For example, in November 2020, the police visited anti-war activist Georgi Vanyan, issuing a fine of 300,000-700,000 AMD ($620-$1,500) and demanded that he remove a post calling for dialogue with Azerbaijan. The police stated that if he did not remove the post, the fine would grow to 1 million AMD ($2,100).2 Marine Manucharyan, a blogger close to the far-right Adekvad party, told online media outlet Aravot that police demanded she remove a Facebook post about people trying to discourage soldiers from fighting in the conflict, but she refused.3
In September 2020, the Armenian government lifted a state of emergency4 that began on March 16, 2020 in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The state of emergency regime included restrictions on mass media and on social media users, stating that they may only refer to official statistics about the pandemic, and that unofficial content posted in violation of the order would be deleted.5 Under Article 182.3 of the code of administrative violations, those deemed in breach of these restrictions could be fined 500–800 times the monthly minimum wage.6 Additionally, outlets and users could be fined the equivalent of $1,000–$2,000 for refusing to remove unofficial information within 24 hours, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).7 By March 23, 2020, the authorities had contacted 22 media outlets and an unspecified number of individuals, asking them to edit or remove information that was inconsistent with “official information,” according to Hayk Mhryan, the deputy chief of police.8 The government provisionally lifted these conditions on April 13, 2020, amidst criticism, though the state of emergency remained intact until September.9
- 1“Annual report of CPFE on Situation with Freedom of Expression and Violations of Rights of Journalists and Media in Armenia-2020,” January 26, 2021, https://khosq.am/en/reports/annual-report-of-cpfe-on-situation-with-fre….
- 2“Armenian police fine peace activist over anti-war post,” OC Media, November 8, 2020, https://oc-media.org/armenian-police-fine-peace-activist-over-anti-war-….
- 3“Marine Manucharyan refused to delete post,” Aravat, October 10, 2020, https://www.aravot.am/2020/10/10/1142192/.
- 4“Armenia Lifts Coronavirus State of Emergency,” Azatutyun, September 11, 2020, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/30833889.html.
- 5“What to expect during state of emergency,” Government of the Republic of Armenia, March 17, 2020, https://www.gov.am/en/news/item/9730/.
- 6“Violation of the Rules of the legal regime of the state of emergency is punishable by a fine [in Armenian],” CivilNet, March 19, 2020, https://perma.cc/E6FS-9CXU.
- 7“Coronavirus response should not impede the work of the media in Armenia, says OSCE Media Freedom Representative,” OSCE, March 24, 2020, https://www.osce.org/representative-on-freedom-of-media/449098.
- 8“Armenia: State of Emergency Press Restrictions Continue; 22 Media Outlets Told to Remove/Edit Coronavirus Content,” Hetq, March 23, 2020, https://hetq.am/en/article/114899.
- 9“Armenia Extends Coronavirus State of Emergency,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 13, 2020, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/30551374.html.
- 10“Armenia: Country specific information on content we restricted based on local law,” Facebook Transparency Center, 2021 https://transparency.fb.com/data/content-restrictions/country/AM/.
- 11“Government Requests to Remove Content,” Google, 2021, https://transparencyreport.google.com/government-removals/by-country/AM….
- 12“Removal Requests,” Twitter Transparency, 2021, https://transparency.twitter.com/en/reports/removal-requests.html#2020-….
|Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process?||3.003 4.004|
Historically, the government of Armenia had rarely restricted content. However, there was a lack of transparency around restrictions on the free flow of information and online content during the coverage period. For example, the government refused to publicly list the 13 media outlets it fined after declaring martial law in September 2020, claiming that doing so would jeopardize the protection of individuals’ personal data (see B2 and C3). There was also little information released by ISPs and the government during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict when users reported issues accessing .az. and .tr domains and TikTok (see A3 and B1).
Armenia permits the filtering of internet content only under a narrow set of circumstances, and decisions to block content require a court order.1 Legally, Armenian courts can issue orders to block illegal content, including child sexual abuse images and content that violates intellectual property rights.2 Orders to block content can be challenged in court by content owners, who may claim compensation if a judge finds the blocking order to be illegal or unnecessary. Appeals of content-blocking decisions can also be filed at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The government is, however, legally empowered to limit mass media, including online mass media, during states of emergency.3
ISPs and content hosts are shielded from liability for illegal content stored on or transmitted through their systems without their prior knowledge.4
Community standards for social media platforms, particularly Facebook, are nontransparent for Armenian users. Facebook has banned the accounts of a number of Armenian opinion leaders and media outlets for violating its terms of service. According to rights activists, the decisions lacked transparency, and some of those banned have been accused of hate speech without evidence to support the claims.5 During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, users from Azerbaijan and Turkey massively reported social media pages of Armenian media outlets, rendering them inaccessible. In October 2020, the YouTube channel of 5th Channel TV, an Armenian news outlet, was taken down because of such mass reporting, according to editor Harutyun Harutyunyan.6 Also, CyberHUB-AM, an NGO, reported that several journalists and online media outlets came to them for help when their Facebook and Twitter accounts were suspended under similar circumstances.
In January 2021, the Facebook Oversight Board, a group of global experts empowered by Facebook to review whether the company’s content moderation decisions comply with its policies, upheld the company’s decision to remove a Russian-language post that used a slur to describe Azerbaijanis and claimed Azerbaijani people had no cultural history. The post was uploaded to the platform in November 2020 during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.7
- 1Armen Hunanyan and Zaruhi Stepanyan, “The Principle of Net Neutrality in the Republic of Armenia.” Presentation at 31st BEREC Plenary Meetings, Cascais, Portugal, May 2017, https://berec.europa.eu/files/document_register_store/2017/6/Session%20….
- 2Intellectual Property Agency, Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Armenia, https://www.aipa.am/en/laws/.
- 3Law of the Republic of Armenia on Legal Regime of Emergency, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=121572.
- 4Tamamyan, Hasmik and Movses Hakobyan, “Internet Freedom in Armenia and Execution of Basic Human Rights in Online Freedom,” Media Initiatives Center, December 2017, https://mediainitiatives.am/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Internet-Freedom….
- 5Samvel Martirosyan, “Without Realizing, Facebook Suppresses Freedom of Speech,” media.am, March 4, 2018, https://media.am/en/critique/2018/04/03/9533/.
- 6“Youtube of 5th Channel is blocked,” Aravot, October 12, 2020, https://www.aravot.am/2020/10/12/1142652/.
- 7“Case Decision 2020-003-FB-UA,” Facebook Oversight Board, January 28, 2021. https://oversightboard.com/decision/FB-QBJDASCV/.
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||3.003 4.004|
Online journalists, commentators, and ordinary internet users do not engage in widespread self-censorship. However, Armenia’s relationship with Azerbaijan and its military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh remain a topic of sensitivity. In the past, Armenian officials have instructed citizens to refrain from discussing the situation in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during moments of tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The martial law designation issued at the outbreak of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict eventually included potential fines for individuals and media outlets deemed to endanger national security by contradicting official statements (see B2 and C1). Yerevan Today, a news outlet, mentioned that it had refrained from commenting on certain issues in Nagorno-Karabakh and felt the pressure of martial law and the new Republic of Armenia Code on Administrative Offenses (see C1).1
In July 2018, in the wake of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, a group of prominent journalists, including several from online media outlets, issued a statement decrying an "atmosphere of intolerance” on social media platforms and denouncing online incitements to violence, including by supporters of the revolution, against the news media in reaction to unfavorable reporting.2 In the highly polarized postrevolutionary media landscape, “critical friends” of the Pashinyan government, often members of Armenia’s vibrant civil society, are sometimes loath to speak out online for fear of being co-opted by members and supporters of the old regime.3
- 1“Yerevan.Today: Our work has become impossible due to fines,” Panorama, October 12, 2020, https://www.panorama.am/en/news/2020/10/12/Yerevan-Today/2379913?__cf_c….
- 2Israelyan et al., “Statement of representatives of media outlets on noticeable disturbing tendencies linked to the activity of the media’, 168.am, July 18, 2018, https://en.168.am/2018/07/18/26570.html.
- 3Armine Ishkanian and Sona Manusyan, “The Postprotest Context in Armenia: Divergent Pathways for Civic Actor,” Carnegie Europe, 24 October 2019, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/10/24/postprotest-context-in-armenia-div….
|Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?||2.002 4.004|
The online information landscape in Armenia is polarized, subject to political pressure, and rife with disinformation. At certain outlets, online journalists are not allowed to deviate from the editorial policies of their employers, who in some cases are linked to political parties or forces. The wife of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Anna Hakobyan, has drawn controversy for her role as the editor-in-chief of the Armenian Times. In a May 2018 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Hakobyan vowed that she and her staff would “criticize everyone.”1 However, some observers have noted that the Armenian Times has published a “suspiciously large number of scoops” since Pashinyan took power, contributing to concerns that the outlet is being used to advance the interests of the prime minister.2
Despite these concerns, some analysts argue that undue political influence on the online information landscape is less prevalent under Pashinyan. In a February 2019 interview with Eurasianet, Gegham Vardanyan, the editor of the media analysis website Media.am, said that “the media [in Armenia] is freer now than it was under the former government. Editors and journalists told me that in the past there were calls [from the government] to dictate the main topics of the news agenda. Now it is easier, there are no longer calls like that.”3
Dis- and misinformation also became worse during the coverage period. A June 2021 report from Freedom House noted that while “the proliferation of false and misleading information has been a problem in Armenia’s media landscape in the past,” the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict “exacerbated the country’s vulnerabilities to disinformation.”4 Additionally, a March 2021 study by the Media Initiatives Center counted “media affiliated with the previous regime, ideological groups, and Russian websites as some of the main sources of disinformation in Armenia.”5 Civil society has also come under fire as a number of news sites, including 168.am, Hraparak.am, and Analatik.am, spread false narratives about various groups that among other things included the term sorosakan, a reference to influential philanthropist and investor George Soros, to insinuate that these groups are implementing a nefarious agenda he allegedly champions. These narratives have become popular on social media as well, particularly on Facebook.6
Armenia’s far right is also a significant source of dis- and misinformation online, which is spread through an ecosystem comprising social media accounts (notably, Facebook pages and YouTube channels) and friendly websites.7
Both the governing My Step Alliance and the opposition Prosperous Armenia party have previously been accused of using fake accounts on social media platforms to spread partisan narratives.8 Armenian political movements continually accuse each other of leveraging troll factories on social media to spread their narrative. Investigative groups periodically report about these networks, which have been linked to both ruling and opposition parties.9
In February 2021, Twitter reported that it removed 35 accounts linked to the government of Armenia. These accounts were created to advance narratives targeting Azerbaijan. In some cases, the fake accounts posed as Azerbaijan-based political figures and news entities.10
In May 2020, an investigative report revealed that MedMedia.am, a website partially backed by a grant from the United States government, was spreading false information on Facebook about COVID-19, calling it a “fake pandemic” and fabricating a story that “a morgue offered 100,000 dram ($205) to a dead patient’s relatives to sign a document saying the death was caused by COVID-19.”11 The US government later rescinded funding for the website.12 Other prominent figures, including neurosurgeon Marina Khachatryan and Karen Vardanyan, the late director of the Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises, also gave voice to disinformation about the pandemic.13
- 1“Anna Hakobyan will continue to be the chief editor of Armenian Times,” Aysor.am, May 15, 2018. https://www.aysor.am/am/news/2018/05/15/%D4%B1%D5%B6%D5%B6%D5%A1-%D5%80….
- 2Ani Mejlumyan, “In the new Armenia, media freedom is a mixed bag,” Eurasianet, February 6, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/in-the-new-armenia-media-freedom-is-a-mixed-bag.
- 3Ani Mejlumyan, “In the new Armenia, media freedom is a mixed bag,” Eurasianet, February 6, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/in-the-new-armenia-media-freedom-is-a-mixed-bag.
- 4Arshaluys Barseghyan, Lusine Grigoryan, Anna Pambukhchyan, Artur Papyan, and Elen Aghekyan “Disinformation and Misinformation in Armenia Confronting the Power of False Narratives,”Freedom House, June 2021, p. 4, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/Disinformation-in-….
- 5Ibid, p. 5
- 6Ibid, p. 26-27
- 7Armen Grigoryan, “’Armenia first:’ behind the rise of Armenia’s alt-right scene,” openDemocracy, September 4, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/armenia-first-behind-the-rise-of-a….
- 8Lilit Arakelyan, “Armenia Searches for Solutions to Fake News,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, February 10, 2020, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/armenia-searches-solutions-fake-news.
- 9“Arthur Vanetsyan’s ‘virtual homeland’ or the 160 fake accounts of an opposition figure,” Fact Investigation Platform, January 27, 2021, https://fip.am/en/14585; “What do pro-government pages propagate,” Fact Investigation Platform, March 17, 2021, https://fip.am/en/14941; “’We are going to fake it all.’ Kocharyan’s virtual alliance,” Fact Investigation Plaform, June 17, 2021, https://fip.am/en/16104.
- 10“Disclosing networks of state-linked information operations,” Twitter, February 23, 2021, https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2021/disclosing-networks-…,
- 11Tatev Hovhannisyan, “Revealed: US-funded website spreading COVID misinformation in Armenia,” openDemocracy, May 28, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/us-money-armenia-misinformation-c….
- 12Tatev Hovhannisyan and Claire Provost, “US ends funding for Armenian website that spread COVID-19 misinformation,” openDemocracy, June 9, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/us-ends-funding-armenian-website-….
- 13Arshaluys Barseghyan, Lusine Grigoryan, Anna Pambukhchyan, Artur Papyan, and Elen Aghekyan “Disinformation and Misinformation in Armenia Confronting the Power of False Narratives,” Freedom House, June 2021, p. 14, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/Disinformation-in-…
|Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?||3.003 3.003|
Since the Velvet Revolution, media outlets and other users have not faced arbitrary economic or regulatory constraints that would significantly impact their ability to publish online. In fact, economic and other liberalization that followed the Velvet Revolution helped drive growth in the digital media sector.
IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index notes that only broadcast media outlets must obtain licenses and that “market entry and tax structure for media are fair.”1 While the advertising market remains small, it is less politicized than before the revolution. According to IREX, “if previously the advertising spending was controlled (by government circles) and only select online outlets could receive advertising, now it is more liberal, and online outlets can also secure advertising.”2 According to one expert, in 2018 the online advertising market in Armenia was worth about $3.5 million, with most revenue going to gambling websites.3 The market is reportedly growing rapidly.
While net neutrality is not explicitly enshrined in Armenian law, a 2014 government resolution supports the principle.4 A 2008 PSRC decision requires ISPs to inform subscribers of any discriminatory network traffic management policies.5
- 1“Media Sustainability Index 2019: Armenia,” IREX, 2019, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
- 2Media Sustainability Index 2019: Armenia, IREX, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
- 3“In 10 years Armenian online advertisement market has 10 times growth [in Armenian],” arka.am, http://arka.am/am/news/interview/Hayastanum_internet_govazdi_shukan_/.
- 4“Appendix of the 34th Protocol Decision of the Government of the Republic of Armenia, Internet Governance Principles,” Internet Governance Forum Armenia, August 14, 2014, http://igf.am/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/IG_Principles_EN.pdf.
- 5Decision of the Public Services Regulatory Commission of the Republic Of Armenia to Establish the Order for Publishing Data and Internet Access Services, Legal Information System of Armenia, September 3, 2008, https://www.arlis.am/DocumentView.aspx?DocID=77489.
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability?||3.003 4.004|
Users are able to access a wide array of content online, primarily in Armenian, English, and Russian.1 According to a 2019 media consumption survey, the internet is the primary source of information for a plurality of Armenians (36.5 percent), edging out traditionally more popular mediums such as radio and television.2 A variety of independent and opposition web resources provide audiences with politically neutral content as well as opposition viewpoints. However, IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index notes that “it is rare for an individual media outlet to include multiple points of view.”3
The social media platforms Facebook, Odnoklassniki, Twitter, VKontakte, and YouTube are among the most-visited websites in Armenia. Many users get their news from these platforms, including from a growing crop of bloggers, vloggers, and influencers. According to a 2019 media consumption survey, Facebook is the most popular social media platform. However, online news and livestreams, including on Facebook and Facebook Live, are perceived as less-trustworthy sources of information than traditional mediums like print and television.4
During the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, the government withheld information from front line, which helped spread misinformation and reduced the public’s trust in information from official sources.5
During a January 2019 stream on Facebook Live, Prime Minister Pashinyan declared, without citing evidence, that 90 percent of the Armenian media belongs to former government officials or opposition figures.6
- 1“Study on Media Consumption and the Level of Misinformation in Armenia,” Advanced Public Research Group NGO, 2019, https://www.aprgroup.org/images/Library/NED_report/presentation_2019-04….
- 2“Study on Media Consumption and the Level of Misinformation in Armenia,” Advanced Public Research Group NGO, 2019, https://www.aprgroup.org/images/Library/NED_report/presentation_2019-04….
- 3Media Sustainability Index 2019: Armenia, IREX, https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index….
- 4“Study on Media Consumption and the Level of Misinformation in Armenia,” Advanced Public Research Group NGO, 2019, https://www.aprgroup.org/images/Library/NED_report/presentation_2019-04….
- 5“Information Failure On The Internal Front,” Media.am, November 23, 2020, https://media.am/en/critique/2020/11/23/25152/.
- 6“Government is not robbing the people and the state – Pashinyan about campaign in media against the government [in Russian],” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 15, 2019, https://rus.azatutyun.am/a/29710650.html.
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||6.006 6.006|
Activists and protest movements rely on social media to mobilize citizens and gather support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several online flash mobs encouraged people to maintain social distance, wear masks, and take other precautions. However, Prime Minister Pashinyan, a frequent Facebook user, faced allegations of violating ethics and privacy rights1 after asking his supporters to film people without masks.2
In August 2020, the Armenian Public Front launched the #SaveAmulsar campaign, protesting construction of the Amulsar gold mine.3
After border skirmishes between Azerbaijan in Armenia in July 2020, users posted Fancams, or video close ups popularized by K-pop fans, to raise awareness about the conflict. Likewise, in the same month, both Armenian and Azerbaijani activists used the hashtags #wordsnotswords to advocate for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 4
Earlier, in July 2019, journalist Lucy Kocharyan helped kick-start a reckoning with sexual violence by collecting and publishing stories from anonymous survivors of assault on Facebook using the hashtag #բռնության_ձայնը (“Voices of Violence”).5
- 1“Pashinyan Criticized For Shaming People In Anti-Coronavirus Drive,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 5, 2020, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/30655102.html.
- 2Nikol Pashinyan, “Coronavirus Announcement,” Facebook post, June 12, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/nikol.pashinyan/posts/2663363290650716.
- 3Andranik Shirinyan, “Activism in Times of a Pandemic: A Case Study on the South Caucasus,” EVN Report, August 27, 2020, https://www.evnreport.com/raw-unfiltered/activism-in-times-of-a-pandemi….
- 4Andranik Shirinyan, “Activism in Times of a Pandemic: A Case Study on the South Caucasus,” EVN Report, August 27, 2020, https://www.evnreport.com/raw-unfiltered/activism-in-times-of-a-pandemi….
- 5Ani Mejlumyan, “Armenia’s #metoo aims to break silence on sexual violence,” Eurasianet, July 9, 2019, https://eurasianet.org/armenias-metoo-aims-to-break-silence-on-sexual-v….
|Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?||3.003 6.006|
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech to individuals and media outlets,1 and Armenian criminal legislation grants journalists certain protections. According to Article 164 of the criminal code, hindering the legal professional activities of a journalist, as well as forcing a journalist to disseminate or withhold information, is punishable by fines or imprisonment for up to one year. The same actions committed by an official in abuse of their office is punishable by up to three years in prison and a ban on holding certain posts in the government for up to three years.2 However, neither the criminal code nor media legislation clearly defines who qualifies as a journalist, or whether these rights apply to online journalists and bloggers.
The 2003 Law on Mass Media adopted a unified regulatory framework for all forms of media content, including online content.3
On September 27, 2020, Armenia declared martial law hours after heavy clashes with Azerbaijan army started on the border of Nagorno-Karabakh.4 In October, Armenia amended the martial law to give the police the authority to fine media outlets and request the removal of content (see B2, B3, and C3). The amendment specifically concerns the reports “criticizing” or “refuting actions of state and local self-government bodies and officials” as it relates to national security. The law also criminalizes articles and posts “questioning the effectiveness of those actions or depreciating them in any way.”5 For media outlets and journalists, fines were set in the amount of between 700,000 and 1,000,000 dram ($1,400 and $2,000). If an outlet refused to immediately delete article fines increased to 1 to 1.5 million dram ($2,000 to $3,000). For people and organizations not affiliated with media outlets, fines were between 300,000 and 700,000 dram ($600 to $1,400), and after refusing to delete information fines increase to 700,000 to 1,000,000 dram ($1,400 to $2,000).6 The martial law measures were eased after the ceasefire agreement was enacted on November 10, but parliament did not vote to formally end them until March 2021.7
Armenia’s judiciary lacks independence and is one of the least trusted public institutions in the country.8 In May 2019, Prime Minister Pashinyan announced that he would attempt to comprehensively reform the judiciary and improve its independence,9 but the centerpiece of this effort, a national referendum that would have allowed him to dismiss constitutional court judges, was scrapped amid the COVID-19 pandemic.10
- 1Armenia's Constitution of 1995 with Amendments through 2015, available at: https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Armenia_2015.pdf?lang=en.
- 2Art. 164, Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia as amended on January 6, 2006, National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, http://parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=1349&lang=eng.
- 3Law of the Republic of Armenia on Mass Media as of December 13, 2003, National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, http://parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=1890&lang=arm.
- 4Nikol Pashinyan, “At the decision of the government…” Twitter Post, September 27, 2020, https://twitter.com/NikolPashinyan/status/1310146071004315648?s=20.
- 5Armenia: Martial law undermines press freedom, IFEX, October 13, 2020. https://ifex.org/armenia-martial-law-undermines-press-freedom/.
- 6“Fines for violation of martial law [in Armenian],” Hetq, October 10, 2020, https://hetq.am/hy/article/122914.
- 7“Armenian Parliament Votes To End Martial Law,” Azatutyan, March 24, 2021, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/31166809.html.
- 8“Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Armenia,” International Republican Institute, 2019, https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/wysiwyg/iri_poll_armenia_septem….
- 9“Armenian PM Calls For Radical Justice Reforms As 'Second Phase Of Revolution',” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, May 20, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/armenians-heed-call-to-block-courts-pashinian-t….
- 10Ejmin Shahbazian and Maritsa Mandalyan, “What Happened to the Constitutional Referendum?,” EVN Report, June 7, 2020, https://www.evnreport.com/politics/what-happened-to-the-constitutional-….
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards?||3.003 4.004|
Some laws threaten the constitution’s guarantees of freedom of online expression, though they have not been widely implemented to suppress online speech. Armenian criminal legislation prohibits the dissemination of speech that incites racial, religious, or national hatred, as well as calls to seize state power or change the constitutional order by force.1 These laws apply to expression both online and offline, and some rights activists fear that they could be used to arrest and prosecute critics of the government. Moreover, during the coverage period, the parliament introduced and passed harsher penalties for defamation and insult cases, even though defamation was decriminalized in 2010,2 and in 2011 the Constitutional Court ruled that courts should avoid imposing large fines on media outlets for defamation.3
In July 2021, after the coverage period, parliament passed amendments to the criminal code, which stipulates that grave insults or comments that “offend other’s dignity in an ‘indecent manner’” directed at state officials, politicians, civic activists, and other public figures are punishable with a fine of up to 500,000 dram ($1,000). Repeated offenses will result in fines of 1 million AMD to 3 million dram ($6,000) and up to three months in prison.4
Prior to the amendments’ passage, In April 2021, President Sarkissian refused to sign an amendment to Armenia’s defamation law that would increase fines in defamation and insult cases threefold.5 Parliament initially passed the law, which was authored by Deputy Parliament Speaker Alen Simonyan, in March 2021. The law raised existing fines to 3 million dram ($6,000) in cases of insult and 6 million dram ($12,000) in cases of defamation.6 After refusing to sign the law, President Sarkissian referred it to the Constitutional Court.
Armenian laws on pornography and copyright infringement generally align with European legal standards,7 and companies have not been held liable for illegal content shared by users (see B3). The act of downloading illegal materials or copyrighted publications is not subject to prosecution unless prosecutors can prove the content was stored with intent to disseminate it. Armenia is a signatory to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, and Armenian cybercrime legislation is in accordance with the principles declared in the convention.
In April 2020, the parliament adopted amendments to the criminal code that criminalize violent hate speech. Accordingly, publicly inciting or justifying violence based on gender, race, skin color, ethnic or social origin, or other characteristics will be subject to penalties including fines and imprisonment for up to three years.8 At the time of writing, no criminal cases had been opened under these new provisions. The amendments were met with some skepticism; one opposition lawmaker asserted that “it will be very difficult to implement the law without badly affecting freedom of speech.”9 A civil society leader seconded these doubts, noting that “when insult, intolerance, hate speech and in some cases even obscenity is voiced from the highest rostrums of the country, it is not realistic to expect that civilians will keep high standards of decorum.”10
In December 2019, a member of parliament introduced a bill that, if passed, would punish the dissemination of “false information” with prison terms of up to two years, but it has not progressed.11
- 1Art. 226 and 301 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia, National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, http://parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=1349&lang=eng.
- 2“Analysis of Armenia’s Judicial Practice in Cases of Libel and insult,” Yerevan Press Club, 2012, https://ypc.am/upload/Analysis%20of%20Armenia%E2%80%99s%20Judicial%20Pr….
- 3“Guide on Defamation and Insult,” OSCE, September 11, 2019, https://www.osce.org/yerevan/123446.
- 4Tatevik Lazarian, “Armenian Parliament Criminalizes ‘Grave Insults’,” Azatutyan, July 30, 2021, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/31386137.html.
- 5“Sarkissian refuses to sign into law ‘explicitly problematic’ bill envisaging higher fines for defamation,” Armenpress, April 15, 2021, https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1049088.html.
- 6Ani Mejlumyan, “Armenian legislation draws criticism from press advocates,” Eurasianet, April 30, 2021, https://eurasianet.org/armenian-legislation-draws-criticism-from-press-….
- 7Cybercrime was defined under the new Criminal Code of the Republic of Armenia, adopted on April 18, 2003. The first prosecution case for the dissemination of illegal pornography via the internet was recorded in 2004.
- 8“Armenia criminalises public calls to violence,” CSO Meter, April 2020, https://csometer.info/armenia-criminalises-public-calls-to-violence/.
- 9“In Armenia, law on hate rhetoric provokes skepticism among human rights defenders,” Caucasian Knot, April 16, 2020, https://www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/50620/.
- 10Mania Israyelyan, “Hate Speech: Armenian Leaders Set Bad Example,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, June 22, 2020, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/hate-speech-armenian-leaders-set-bad-exa….
- 11Ani Mejlumyan, “Armenia debates cracking down on “fake news” and hate speech,” Eurasianet, February 13, 2020, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-debates-cracking-down-on-fake-news-and-h….
|Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards?||4.004 6.006|
Score Change: The score declined from 5 to 4 due to prosecutions for online speech purportedly violating restrictive emergency laws as well as a case in which a former official was detained, despite scant evidence against him.
Civil defamation cases, usually against journalists, are sometimes brought in response to the publication of critical content online. The watchdog group Reporters Without Borders found in 2020 that, “the number of lawsuits alleging defamation or insult... has tripled in the past four years.”1 In 2020, 72 lawsuits were filed against media outlets and journalists, both online and offline, 61 of which were on the grounds of insult and defamation under Article 1087.1 of the Civil Code.2
In February 2021, a Yerevan Court ordered the detention of Ara Saghatelyan, the former parliament chief of staff, for two months alleging he incited violence and engaged in other illegal behavior through a fake Facebook account. The account, which operated under the name “Gagik Soghomonyan,” regularly criticized the Armenian government. Saghatelyan’s lawyer said there was no factual evidence supporting the charge, except that the internet protocol (IP) address associated with posts from “Gagik Soghomonyan” was shared with that of a virtual private network (VPN) server. Saghatelyan was charged with “inciting national, racial, or religious enmity,” calling for violence, and violating “the rules of publishing or disseminating information during martial law,” which are criminalized under articles 226 and 307 of Armenia’s criminal code.3 In March, Saghatelyan filed an appeal to the Criminal Court of Appeal.4 Karen Bekaryan, a cofounder of Qaryak Media Holding, was also arrested in relation to the page.5 In March, the Criminal Court of Appeal overturned the initial ruling and the defendants were released. In May, Ara Saghatelyan reported that the National Security Agency still had his electronic devices as well as the computer of his wife and the phone of his teenage son.6
In October 2020, the authorities fined Yerevan Today 700,000 dram ($1,400) under provisions of the martial law designation for republishing an article from 7or.am, a news site, because it “threatened the security of the state.” Yerevan Today claimed that the October 2020 amendments to the law, which outlined penalties for media outlets (see C1) had not yet gone into effect.7 Additionally, the authorities fined 13 news sites 700,000 dram for articles they felt threatened state security during the war. One publication that refused to remove an article was fined an additional 1.5 million dram ($3,000) (see B2).8
- 1“Concern about judicial harassment of Armenia’s media,” Reporters Without Borders, February 2020, https://rsf.org/en/news/concern-about-judicial-harassment-armenias-media.
- 2“Annual report of CPFE on Situation with Freedom of Expression and Violations of Rights of Journalists and Media in Armenia-2020,” CPFE, January, 26 2021, https://khosq.am/en/reports/annual-report-of-cpfe-on-situation-with-fre….
- 3“Ara Saghatelyan handed two-month jail term in Yerevan,” Panarmenian, February 22, 2021. https://www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/290501/Ara_Saghatelyan_handed_twom….
- 4“JuYerevan court examines complaint against Ara Saghatelyan’s arrest,” Aysor, March 4, 2021, https://www.aysor.am/en/news/2021/03/04/saghatelyan-court/1808571.
- 5“Complaint on Karen Bekaryan’s Arrest,” Aysor, February 20, 2021. https://www.aysor.am/en/news/2021/02/20/karen-bekaryan/1803376.
- 6“I am targeted because Nikol (Pashinyan) has obligations to the third party persons: Ara Saghatelyan (Armenian),” Aysor, May 5, 2021, https://www.aysor.am/am/news/2021/05/05/%D5%8D%D5%A1%D5%B2%D5%A1%D5%A9%…
- 7“Yerevan.Today: Our work has become impossible due to fines,” Yerevan Today, October 12, 2020. https://www.panorama.am/en/news/2020/10/12/Yerevan-Today/2379913?__cf_c….
- 8“Annual report of CPFE on Situation with Freedom of Expression and Violations of Rights of Journalists and Media in Armenia-2020,” CPFE, January 26, 2021, https://khosq.am/en/reports/annual-report-of-cpfe-on-situation-with-fre….
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||3.003 4.004|
Anonymous communication and encryption tools are neither prohibited nor restricted in Armenia. However, the law requires individuals to present identification when purchasing a SIM card, effectively requiring people to disclose personal information to use a mobile phone.1
- 1“Timeline of SIM Card Registration Laws,” Privacy International, June 11, 2019, https://privacyinternational.org/long-read/3018/timeline-sim-card-regis….
|Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?||3.003 6.006|
Electronic state surveillance remains a threat to Armenians’ online privacy rights. Armenia is widely believed to possess Russian-designed System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM) electronic surveillance capabilities. The National Security Service (NSS) has lawful interception powers, and surveillance without a court order is permitted for up to 48 hours when national security is imminently threatened.1
In January 2020, the parliament passed amendments to the law regulating law enforcement and intelligence activities that authorized the police to seek and obtain warrants to tap phones for surveillance purposes. Previously, the law authorized only the NSS to tap phones.2
In February 2019, a Eurasianet report revealed that the Pashinyan government was continuing negotiations with Huawei to bring the Chinese company’s “Smart City” technology to Yerevan.3 Talks began in 2017, during the administration of former president Serzh Sargsyan. “Smart City” systems include, among other elements, the deployment of a closed-circuit television (CCTV) network with artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition capabilities. In addition to enhancing state surveillance of private citizens, experts have also expressed concern that Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government mean that data collected through “Smart City” technology could be accessible to Chinese authorities. Following the February 2019 report, an official from the office of the mayor of Yerevan stated that the negotiations had been suspended.4
Enacted in 2015, the Personal Data Protection Law5 created the Personal Data Protection Agency, which has the authority to appeal decisions by state agencies if they potentially violate citizens’ right to privacy through the use of personal data. Under the same law, government and law enforcement bodies are allowed to collect an individual’s personal data, but only with a court order. State monitoring and storage of personal data is illegal unless it is required for the provision of state services. Only data obtained in line with these narrow legal requirements may be used as evidence in legal proceedings. Nonetheless, the courts generally support data collection requests from law enforcement bodies.
- 1Tamamyan, Hasmik, Movses Hakobyan, “Internet Freedom in Armenia and Execution of Basic Human Rights in Online Freedom,” Media Initiatives Center, December 2017, https://mediainitiatives.am/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Internet-Freedom….
- 2“Parliament gives police authority to conduct phone tapping surveillance,” Armenpress, January 21, 2020, https://armenpress.am/eng/news/1002039.html.
- 3Grigor Atanesian, “Armenia mulls Chinese surveillance tech,” Eurasianet, February 20, 2019. https://eurasianet.org/armenia-mulls-chinese-surveillance-tech.
- 4Interview with spokesman for the office of the Mayor of Yerevan.
- 5“Law on Protection of Personal Data,” National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia, http://www.parliament.am/legislation.php?sel=show&ID=5275.
|Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy?||5.005 6.006|
Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 because the government stopped requiring service providers to hand over subscribers’ metadata, a practice that began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Armenian legislation does not require service providers to monitor traffic or content. Moreover, the Personal Data Protection Law mandates that service providers store only personal data required for billing purposes.1
In March 2020, the parliament adopted a law that requires telecommunications companies to provide the authorities with their subscribers’ phone records, including their phone numbers and the location, time, and date of their calls and texts, in order to facilitate COVID-19 contact tracing.2 The law did not allow the government to access users’ communications, only their metadata, and only applied for the duration of the state of emergency, which ended in September 2020.3 The metadata collected via this program was to be deleted within one month of the end of the state of emergency. In mid-May 2020, officials claimed that they had traced phone calls made by 1,938 people and found 735 instances of direct contact with people who had tested positive for COVID-19.4 However, by that time Armenia’s COVID-19 caseload was increasing by several hundred each day,5 raising doubts as to the program’s effectiveness. One opposition lawmaker claimed the metadata could only identify the location of users in open spaces—and only then to within 20-100 meters—meaning the program provides “no information on personal interactions.”6 In September 2020, all collected metadata was destroyed in a presence of representatives of the government, National Assembly, and three mobile operators. All hardware devices on which the information was stored were also physically destroyed.7
Members of civil society expressed concern that the information collected by the program could be used for other purposes, including bulk surveillance. A main concern was that the government did not communicate the workings of the program in a transparent manner. Moreover, there was no evident public control over the program. The collected metadata was stored by the state E-Government Infrastructure Implementation Office, while the program’s technical infrastructure was overseen by the NSS.8 A public information request asking who developed the program was denied, as the government explained that “the system was not obtained through procedural purchase but by volunteers and for free. Individual programmers developed and provided the system as a donation…at the same time, the programmers do not wish their names to be public and did not agree to publicize their free help.”9
Under the Electronic Communications Law, providers must make customer data available to authorities “in connection with surveillance, inquest, or criminal prosecution.”10 Upon a court order, they must also give authorities access to “any communications equipment… including wiretapping devices.”11 Cybercafés and other public access points are not required to identify clients or to monitor or store personal data and traffic information.
In October 2019, the PSRC drafted a set of data-retention requirements, circulating them among ISPs.12 The vaguely worded requirements would have ISPs collect a wealth of personal data, including metadata, and store it for two years.13 The draft was leaked and ignited outrage among politicians and civil society actors, some of whom said certain provisions were illegal.14 There have been no reports of meaningful follow-up on the draft.
- 1Law on Protection of Personal Data, available at: http://www.foi.am/u_files/file/Personaldataprotectionlaw_ENG.pdf.
- 2See “On making amendments to the legal regime of emergency [in Armenian],” IRTEK, https://www.irtek.am/views/act.aspx?aid=152585.
- 3“Armenia: Law Restricts Privacy Amid COVID-19 Fight,” Human Rights Watch, April 3, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/03/armenia-law-restricts-privacy-amid-….
- 4“How many infected people found using controversial law [in Armenian],” Factor, May 19, 2020, https://factor.am/251289.html.
- 5See: https://covid19.who.int/region/euro/country/am
- 6Lilit Arakelyan, “Armenia: Can Mass Surveillance Halt Covid-19?” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 16, 2020, https://iwpr.net/global-voices/armenia-can-mass-surveillance-halt-covid….
- 7“Statement on destruction of information and storage devices [in Armenian],” Government of Armenia, September 25, 2020, https://www.gov.am/u_files/file/Haytararutyunner/Ardzanagrutyun.pdf.
- 8Liana Sayadyan, “The NSS maintains the software and security control of the infected people [in Armenian],” Hetq, May 6, 2020, https://hetq.am/hy/article/116810.
- 9Astghik Karapetyan, “Efficiency, Flaws and Potential Dangers of Phone Tracking,” EVN Report, July 28, 2020, https://www.evnreport.com/politics/efficiency-flaws-and-potential-dange….
- 10Law on Electronic Communications, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/Annexes/4/elektr_com_en.pdf.
- 11Law on Electronic Communications, Legal Information System of Armenia, https://www.arlis.am/Annexes/4/elektr_com_en.pdf.
- 12“Armenian communications regulator to force ISPs to collect user data,” OC Media, October 28, 2019, https://oc-media.org/armenian-communications-regulator-to-force-isps-to….
- 13Harout Manougian, “Logging your internet activity: What’s true and what’s not,” EVN Report, October 31, 2019, https://www.evnreport.com/raw-unfiltered/logging-your-internet-activity….
- 14“The right to personal data protection cannot be breached,” Open Society Foundations Armenia, September 2019, https://www.osf.am/2019/10/the-right-to-personal-data-protection-cannot….
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities?||4.004 5.005|
Online journalists are sometimes subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence in retaliation for their work, though such attacks have subsided somewhat since the Velvet Revolution. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression recorded 4 cases of physical attacks against journalists, in Armenia, as well as 2 others who were wounded in the Azerbaijani shelling of Martuni town in Nagorno-Karabakh.1
In May 2021, Yerkir.am, a news outlet aligned with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, published a Facebook post calling for legal action against Gayane Ayvazyan, a researcher who questioned Armenia’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh.2
In November 2020, a crowd of around 40 men attacked the office of Azatutyun, the Armenian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) affiliate, after the government signed a ceasefire deal with Azerbaijan. The men accused the journalists of being traitors and threatened to destroy the outlet’s servers to prevent journalists from working.3
Online hate speech towards LGBT+ people remains frequent, and is mostly directed by far-right organizations and political movements.4
In December 2020, the Human Rights Defender of Armenia and the Human Rights Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic published a joint report on targeted hate speech attacks originating from Azerbaijani and Turkish mass media and social media networks on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms. The report claimed that the networks on these platforms incited violence, including “calls for killings, torture, inhuman treatment, and the destruction of heritage sites.”5
- 1“Annual report of CPFE on Situation with Freedom of Expression and Violations of Rights of Journalists and Media in Armenia-2020,” CPFE, January 26, 2021, https://khosq.am/en/reports/annual-report-of-cpfe-on-situation-with-fre….
- 2“Ինչպիսի՞ պատժիչ քայլեր են ձեռնարկվելու Գայանե Այվազյանի հանդեպ. հարցում ԱԱԾ-ին [What punitive steps will be taken against Gayane Ayvazyan? inquiry to the NSS],” Yerkir.am, May 15, 2021, https://www.yerkir.am/news/view/238397.html?fbclid=IwAR2GzU4fhWXSb9XCEF….
- 3“Angry Mob Attacks RFE/RL’s Armenia Office Amid Unrest Following Nagorno-Karabakh Deal,” Azatutyun, November 10, 2020, https://www.azatutyun.am/a/30939676.html.
- 4Armen Grigoryan, “’Armenia first’: behind the rise of Armenia’s alt-right scene,” openDemocracy, September 4, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/armenia-first-behind-the-rise-of-a….
- 5Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia, “AD HOC PUBLIC REPORT ORGANIZED HATE SPEECH AND ANIMOSITY TOWARDS ETHNIC ARMENIANS IN AZERBAIJAN AS ROOT CAUSES OF ETHNICALLYBASED TORTURE AND INHUMAN TREATMENT BY AZERBAIJANI ARMED FORCES (September-November 2020),” December 2020, https://www.ombuds.am/images/files/2bb83fd52ae0011eeaa6e77f42210cd3.pdf.
|Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack?||1.001 3.003|
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 to reflect the increase in attacks on prominent news sites during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Technical attacks target both government websites and civil society groups in Armenia. These attacks frequently originate in neighboring Azerbaijan. The scope and pace of cyberattacks from Azerbaijan increased during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh
After skirmishes broke out between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in July 2020, dozens of websites were hacked, including several prominent news sites.1 When armed conflict broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh later in the year, many Armenian news sites experienced continuous DDoS attacks, which, in some cases lasted even after the ceasefire agreement. A number of sites went down from time to time, but they were mostly available because of usage of DDoS mitigation tools. Cyber security specialists detected massive attacks from Azerbaijani IP addresses, including the Academy of Science of Azerbaijan. 2
Additionally, on September 27, when the war broke out, Armenian websites, including a dozen popular news sites, were redirected to show Azerbaijani propaganda for several hours.3 The attacked sites included prominent news outlets News.am, Armenpress.am, 1inam, Hetq.am, and A1Plus.am.4
In March 2020, cybersecurity researchers reported that hacking group Turla (which is possibly sponsored by the Russian government) targeted four Armenian websites—those of the consular section of the embassy of Armenia in Russia, the Armenian Deposit Guarantee Fund, the Armenian Institute of International and Security Affairs (an independent organization), and the Ministry of Nature Protection and Natural Resources of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). The websites were compromised and infected with malware that could spread to visitors’ computers.5
In December 2019, forrights.am, the website of the NGO Journalists for Human Rights, was subjected to a DDoS for two weeks.6 The website’s editor, Zhanna Alexanyan, stated that she believed the attack was related to the NGO’s investigation into the relatives of a politically influential Armenian, whose name she did not disclose.7
- 1“Azərbaycanlı hakerlər daha 30-ya yaxın erməni saytını dağıdıblar,” Report.az, July 14, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20200719163142/https://report.az/dagliq-qar….
- 2Artur Papyan, “What do you do, when…” Twitter Post, October 21, 2020, https://twitter.com/ditord/status/1318669320579354624.
- 3Data provided by CyberHUB-AM.
- 4“Cyber attacks in Armenia, second half of 2020 [in Armenian],” Banman, December 7, 2020, https://www.banman.am/2020/12/armenia-hack-2020.html.
- 5“Tracking Turla: New backdoor delivered via Armenian watering holes,” WeLiveSecurity, March, 12, 2020, https://www.welivesecurity.com/2020/03/12/tracking-turla-new-backdoor-a….
- 6“Forrights.am human rights web-site under massive hacking attack (Armenian),” Forrights.am, December 25, 2019, https://perma.cc/X778-ZEA6.
- 7Zhanna Alexanyan, “Journalists for Human Rights (forrights.am), a human rights website, has been under attack for 10 days,” Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/zhanna.alexanyan/posts/2548722655181965.
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Global Freedom Score54 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score72 100 free
Freedom in the World StatusPartly Free