At crucial time for country, Armenia’s independent media come under fire

In recent years, a group of political commentators and public figures has formed in Armenia, who, without serious, professional knowledge, have managed to garner a large following and have a certain amount of influence on public discourse in the country. The reasons for this group’s popularity are obvious. They produce low-level content that does not contain any serious analytical elements, but is catchy and often sensationalist. In today’s world, where people expect simple answers to complex processes and questions, content of this quality is easily consumed.

After the end of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, the number of these political influencers has grown exponentially. They have gradually moved from social networks to television channels and some of the large online media outlets with even wider reach, becoming a serious obstacle to the establishment of a culture of healthy and evidence-based discussions in Armenia.

Apart from misleading the public, this group has, at a certain point, started to actively target independent media and organizations operating in Armenia.

Among the organizations and media outlets targeted by this group is, for example, Radio Azatutyun (RFE/RL’s Armenian service), against which a large-scale campaign was launched recently. Various members of the aforementioned informal group have circulated conspiratorial and propagandistic claims, which label almost all independent and professional media outlets and organizations as “pro-Russian.”

Notably, this propaganda campaign is carried out both publicly and in private, when these individuals, who consider themselves part of civil society, send letters to Western embassies and capitals, engaging in baseless slander of colleagues and dirty propaganda against them.

What is truly disconcerting is that the Armenian authorities have also embraced this modus operandi. There is clear information from a number of reliable sources that some high-ranking Armenian officials regularly engage in disinformation and low-quality propaganda against independent media during their foreign visits.

The reasons behind this coordinated campaign are largely clear. Given severe polarization in the political and media landscapes, with both the government and the opposition consistently increasing their propaganda output, the only actors informing the public and holding these political actors accountable are independent media and non-governmental organizations, the number of which has decreased significantly in recent years, because of the cooptation of parts of civil society by the ruling elite.

The authorities, who want to establish total control over all spheres, also try to set their own rules of the game in the media field and influence even the editorial policies of independent media outlets. The aforementioned groups and individuals also cannot tolerate the presence of professional organizations and media outlets that refuse to serve their propaganda agendas.

However, it is obvious that in transition societies that lack strong political institutions, it is the independent media and civil society that can prevent democratic backsliding and contribute to the consolidation of democracy. In that sense, the attacks by the authorities and their proxies on these actors pose a serious threat to the prospects of democratic consolidation in Armenia.

It is of paramount importance to expand the space for independent media and non-governmental organizations and to work toward curbing the disinformation and smearing campaigns of overt and covert actors on public opinion. Armenia’s international partners, in turn, should make it clear to various representatives of the Armenian authorities that attempts to influence independent organizations and media outlets are unacceptable.

Tigran Grigoryan is a columnist for CivilNet and the head of the Regional Center for Democracy and Security, a Yerevan-based think tank.

Read the article in Armenian: Քաղաքական բանսարկուներն ընդդեմ անկախ լրատվամիջոցների

  • The author needs some specifics, names, etc. “… a group of political commentators and public figures has formed in Armenia”. This reluctance to name names, a common practice in Armenia, severly weakens the article for readers.

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