Armenia imposes Internet censorship as unrest breaks out following disputed Presidential elections

By: admin on 11 March 2008

Armenia imposed censorship of Internet and media content as political unrest prompted authorities to enact a state of emergency following the recent Presidential elections. Riots broke out on March 1-2, 2008 after hundreds of protesters were injured and up to 40 killed as security forces loyal to the government used force to disperse supporters of the opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian. The protesters demanded the annulment of election results, which marked a victory for the current Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Serzh Sargsyan. The elections were reported as “mostly in line with the country's international commitments” by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU). However, the scale of public protests and violence marked a serious downturn in Armenia.

In the wake of the riots, outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency in the country. Ter-Petrossian was placed under house arrest. Under the emergency rules, all TV and radio programming and mass media are restricted to publishing only ‘official information’. The emergency measures, however, neither spell out what constitutes ‘official information’ nor explain who will be in charge to define such information. Some media outlets complied with the restrictions. Others, fearing that they would be seen as disseminating government propaganda, suspended publication until the emergency measures are lifted. The editor of Aravot newspaper, Mr. Aram Abrahamyan, for example, stated that his publication would resume work only after allowed to provide an impartial and balanced coverage of events to its readers.

The Presidential Decree introducing the emergency measures (a translated version is available here) restricts press content but does not specifically relate to Internet content. Nevertheless, a growing number of Armenian Web sites are inaccessible. The domain names of major independent and opposition sites were suspended. The DNS request for the listed Web sites does not resolve any longer. However, according to the Armenian WhoIs database the domain name’s registration is still active, which suggests that the sites have been informally suspended (see at https://www.amnic.net/whois). ONI research confirmed that the suspensions were effected by the Armenia Internet Society (isoc.am), which administers the country code domain name (ccTLD). It took some days for the ISOC Armenia to announce that the National Security Service (NSS) demanded the suspensions.

The list below provides a description of the Web sites suspended on March 3-4, 2008:

  • aravot.am - Aravor is an independent media outlet, whose print edition was also suspended;
  • a1plus.am - the online channel of an independent television station closed by authorities in 2001;
  • hzh.am - the site of an opposition media;
  • lragir.am - the site of an independent online news media;
  • echannel.am* - the Web site of Internews Network in Armenia;
  • azatutyun.am* - the Web site of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the Armenian language.

* Echannel.am and azatutyun.am are listed “on hold” in the online Armenian WhoIs database but no further information has been released as to the rationale behind suspending the sites.

Note: Some domain names were reportedly restored on March 6, but they still could not be accessed because relevant records on DNS had been removed.

With most independent news media outlets curtailed, Armenians have exchanged information on foreign-hosted social network sites such as YouTube and Facebook. Internet Service Providers in the country, however, reported that they were ordered by the NSS to block a number of Web sites hosted outside the country. ONI research confirmed that starting on March 5, 2008 a number of ISPs have gradually blocked access to YouTube.com thus adding Armenia to the list of countries filtering the popular media-sharing site (see Turkey, Pakistan). Possible reasons for blocking YouTube in Armenia are videos (that otherwise have been largely confiscated by the police) of riot scenes and police operations (e.g., here and here). In addition, a main independent media site (hosted abroad) – ArmeniaToday (www.armtoday.info) – has been filtered within the country reportedly as of March 7, 2008.

The crackdown on the media and Internet has created an unprecedented opportunity for bloggers to provide alternative viewpoints on the situation in Armenia. Some bloggers are spreading information on how to circumvent Internet censorship. Media and human rights activists both inside and outside the country are shocked with the tightening grip on the media and Internet outlets in government’s efforts to deal with demonstrators. It is a question of time to prove whether the 20-day emergency measures slow down the opposition momentum as intended by the government.

ONI continues to monitor the situation and will update on its findings as appropriate.

Country background:
Independent as of 1991, Armenia has struggled through political instabilities, international conflicts and widespread poverty and unemployment. The country is recovering after the war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed break-away territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict continues to spark fire across the borders of the two countries sporadically (the most recent report as of March 4, 2008). Economically devastating, the war overshadowed Armenian development, as Azerbaijan imposed an air and rail blockade that was eventually supported by Turkey.

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