By Mark Dovich
Arayik Harutyunyan, the leader of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, signed a decree on Friday restricting the free flow of information in the territory, calling it a “necessity to ensure state and public security” under the region’s “legal regime of martial law.”
Under the new rules, all information relating to Karabakh’s borders or military “should be done exclusively with reference to official information provided or published by state bodies.” The decree covers not only social media posts, but also journalistic activities, raising alarm for the future of press freedom in the region.
“Reports deliberately misleading or controverting the actions…of the state and local self-government bodies and officials” and “propaganda against the defense capacity and security” of Karabakh are now prohibited as well.
The decree lays out a series of punishments for those convicted of breaking the new restrictions on information, with media workers subject to fines “in the amount of 700 to 1000 times the minimum wage” and non-journalists vulnerable to fines “in the amount of 300 to 700 times the minimum wage.”
Moreover, violations of the decree that “cause significant damage to the rights or legitimate interests” of individuals, organizations, society, or the state may result in fines “in the amount of 2000 to 3000 times the minimum wage, or imprisonment for a maximum of two years.”
Sergey Shahverdyan, a well-known public figure in Karabakh who has held a variety of high-level posts in the Karabakh’s government, wrote on Facebook that such “censorship” is “quite understandable in our conditions,” but also raised concerns about how the Karabakh authorities could enforce the restrictions.
“How will they carry out the near impossible: control over social media? How will the provisions of the decree be implemented for non-residents of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, for the media, and for users of social networks living in Armenia and abroad,” he wrote.
“Perhaps, instead of all of this, we should push ourselves harder…and place specialists in the right places to organize the effective work of state propaganda,” he continued. “This is the only effective path.”
Harutyunyan introduced martial law in Karabakh on March 26 in response to an advance two days earlier by Azerbaijani troops into the Armenian-inhabited village of Parukh, also known as Furukh, which lies in the Russian peacekeeping contingent’s zone of responsibility. Russian peacekeepers quickly reestablished control over the area.
That decree limited “the right to freedom of assembly,” banned labor strikes, and prohibited organizations and individuals from engaging in “activities directed against the defense and security” of Karabakh.
During the fall 2020 war in and around Karabakh, Armenia’s authorities adopted similar rules restricting the spread of information, including limitations on the work of the media.
“Internet freedom in Armenia declined significantly as a result of the restrictions,” wrote Freedom House, a prominent watchdog organization based in Washington.