Armenia

Free
71
100
A Obstacles to Access 19 25
B Limits on Content 26 35
C Violations of User Rights 26 40
Last Year's Score & Status
75 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • 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).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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).

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

In the second half of 2020, Facebook,10 Twitter,11 and Google12 did not receive any content removal requests from the Armenian government.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
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.

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
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

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
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

On Armenia

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    55 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    71 100 free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes