On the Verge of ‘Not Free’: Internet in Armenia

The index of internet freedom is on the decline in Armenia. According to Freedom House organization’s Freedom on the Net annual report, internet freedom has been reduced by 2 points in Armenia . Armenia occupies the 30th place in a 100-point scale, instead of last year’s 28 (with 0 being the best score, and 100, the worst.)

Although based on Freedom House’s scales, Armenia is still among countries that have internet freedom, it stands on the border of countries that have partially-free internet. The number was changed as a result of the key developments in the period from June 2015 to May 2016.

  • In July 2016, after the clashes between the armed group “Sasna Tsrer” and the government, social media network Facebook was inaccessible for a short time in Armenia for customers of several internet providers.
  • In April 2016 during the resumption of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, online commentators were encouraged to censor themselves.
  • In July 2015 during the #ElectricYerevan protest, the police targeted journalists covering the action by beating them and by expropriating their equipment.
  • In July 2015 the trial began for YouTube’s “SOS TV” channel. Armenia’s police demanded that the channel apologize and pay a fine for their video, which they believed hurt the image of the police.

According to research, although Armenians in general are free to express their thoughts in the online domain–without restrictions or fear of being punished, some incidents of self-censorship were recorded during the covering of demonstrations and after.

Oppression and violence

According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, in 2015 8 cases of physical abuse towards journalists were reported.

Those subjected to assault include journalists covering the July 2015 #ElectricYerevan demonstration and the December 6 2015 constitutional referendum.

On July 29, 2016 a group of men in plainclothes attacked at least 14 journalists, who were covering the clashes between police and the demonstators supporting the armed group that occupied the SPS regiment. Some of the journalists were hospitalized after the attack, some of their devices broken.

Media, diversity and content manipulation

According to Freedom House, internet users in Armenia have broad access to online content, although traditional media–television and print media, and the country’s internet media are also subject to pressure.

In some cases the journalists weren’t allowed to deviate from the media’s editorial policy, which is often associated with one of the political parties. Similar pressure can affect the overall state of freedom of speech, although online media and individual bloggers resist self-censorship.

Nevertheless, during the escalation of conflict on Karabakh the Ministry of Defense urged citizens to refrain from discussing the current state of the frontlines on the internet, in order to avoid revealing military secrets. Online commentators were exercising self-censorship, and online discussions often turned into hatred, when information about Armenia’s position in the conflict and numbers published by users were perceived as unfavorable for Armenia.

Removal of content

In May 2015 an episode of a satirical web series on YouTube was removed, which satirized the police response to protests in Yerevan. The police complained to YouTube about the copyright infringement for using the video, although the video was more likely targeted for ridiculing the police. The police also filed a lawsuit against SOS TV program, demanding an apology and compensation of 2 million drams, for smearing the honor and dignity and for undermining the good reputation of the Armenian police.

Media expert Samvel Martirosyan is concerned with the alarming decline of internet freedom.

“Although we have remained on the list of countries with internet freedom, just one small move towards the dark side and we will find ourselves outside the group of the free,” he said.

According to the expert, the negative issues are reflected on the web from offline.

“In reality the internet itself remains free among us, simply “old, traditional” negative factors have a negative impact on its assessment. The attacks on journalists from police and those who serve the oligarchs is a phenomenon with no connection to the network, but when the attacks also happen to journalists in online media, it also touches on the freedom of the network,” said Samvel Martirosyan.

Ashot Melikyan, president of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, finds that the decline is worrisome, since online media, unlike broadcast and print media, was considered to be independent in Armenia.

“This is already the last in having free online media. If it increases by one mark, then we will find ourselves among the partially-free countries. And it is interesting, that the media pays little attention to this circumstance–that the freedom has decreased by two marks, stressing the fact that Armenian internet media is free,” said Ashot Melikyan.

Barriers to access

Freedom House notes that although it is by a small slow amount, access to the internet has increased. Internet is available to 58 percent of the population, while last year it was only available to 46 percent.

The market of internet providers is relatively diverse, with local and foreign companies, although the quality of the connection is different in large cities and to customers who live outside of the city.

According to the government, the speed of the internet has increased by more than double in 2015, reaching 17 mpv, compared with 8.7 mpv in 2014.

In December 2015, mobile broadband access plans reached 244,443, increasing by 13,669 compared to 2014.

As of December 2015, out of 3.5 million cell phones 1.6 million are connected to the internet. The use of the phones connected to the internet has increased by 2.3% (85,071 subscribers) compared to last year.

“The government generally does not restrict internet access, although in July 2016, during the civil unrest in Yerevan, one case was registered when Facebook was not accessible for approximately 40 minutes,” the report noted.

For Armenian users internet resources are accessible without restrictions, including voice and instant messaging services.

Armenian users have the possibility to choose between 3 mobile operators and dozens of internet providers, of which 46% are foreign-owned. According to the Public Services Regulatory Commission, there are 71 internet providers in Armenia, 4 of which together make up 90% of the market. From the 4 large internet providers, only one is Armenian. The 4 major providers are Ucom, with a market share of 46%, ArmenTel (Beeline) 36%, Vivacell MTS 15% and Rostelecom 7%.

Since some of the Armenian users are getting filtered traffic from the Russian internet providers, there have been cases where banned websites in Russia have randomly become banned for Armenian users.

Anna Barseghyan
Media.am

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