DIGITALIZATION GOES ON, PROBLEMS REMAIN
The Government of Armenia published the agenda for transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, which will be implemented in the country within the first six months of 2015 (in the first quarter in test mode).
By Government’s decision, shutdown from analogue broadcasting system and equipment’s unmounting will have been completed by the end of 2015.
According to the amendments to the broadcasting legislation, adopted in June 2013, complete suspension of analogue broadcasting in Armenia is to take place on July 1, 2015 (see details in YPC Weekly Newsletter, June 14-20, 2013). Contrary to expectations, the number of TV channels, primarily regional ones, will reduce sharply during the digitalization process, at least during its foreseeable stage. This, in turn, exacerbates the problem of shortage of diversity and pluralism of Armenian TV, as well as the issue of monopolization of broadcasting sphere. Meanwhile, the Government has not released the results of the audit of broadcasting frequencies, which was used as a technical justification for reducing the number of digital broadcasting licenses. In other words, concerns that digitalization will help to strengthen the political control of the authorities over traditional broadcasting, are heard more often.
We turned to Boris NAVASARDIAN, the President of Yerevan Press Club, to comment on the situation.
In his view, the agenda largely specifies the way the process of transition to digital broadcasting will be carried out, however, serious problems remain. That is, primarily a question of standards, which will be offered to broadcasters and consumers of information products. In particular, it is still unclear how they will shape the social package, e.g., it is unclear on what basis consoles will be provided to help you receive a digital signal on the old television sets. This naturally raises questions related to ensuring the right of vulnerable sections of the population to receive information.
Another, equally important problem lies in difficulty to determine technical modernization of TV companies, which, in turn, hampers implementation of plans of broadcasters related to expenses, investment policies and other important components of business activity.
The company, which is to provide technical process of digitalization, was chosen with a significant delay, only in December 2013. That is Ericsson. In fact, the company is starting to work for only a year and a half or two years until complete transition to digital broadcasting. This is a very short period, Boris Navasardian said.
ANONYMITY IS A KEY PRINCIPLE FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN THE INTERNET
On March 4, the draft law on amending the RA Civil Code was put in circulation at Armenian National Assembly. The amendments establishes, in particular, responsibility for media for dissemination publications and comments taken from fake accounts (that is anonymous users or those, who hide under forged usernames).
The draft’s authors explain the necessity of this step with the fact that the number of cases of spreading information, containing libel and insult, from fake accounts, have increased recently. This, in turn, violates human rights, including privacy, as written down in the RA Constitution and in a number of international conventions. Some media reproduce and disseminate defamatory information, received from fake users, thus giving it even more publicity. As a result, this information becomes known even to those who are not registered in social networks.
What will be the consequences of the initiative, introduced by Armenian legislators? Samvel MARTIROSIAN, a well-known blogger and media expert, answers this question.
– The problem is that this draft law seeks to explain everything that happens in the Internet with some specific methods. We find ourselves in rather a tricky situation. The draft law, giving definition to a media outlet, adds that whatever can be subject to this definition, including Facebook profile, blog or twitter account, and so on. In other words, all disseminators of information are automatically equated to the media, which means that legal sanctions can be applied to these communities. That is, the court may render a certain punishment for active Internet users.
– It turns out that a user, who enters his account in the Internet and posts, let’s say, cats or family photos, can be also considered as mass media?
– Yes, as it turns out. At least, this is what the draft’s definition reads. It turns out that if someone wrote a dirty thing about an official or politician, and I shared this in Facebook, then I automatically fall under prosecution. Why? Legislators have introduced the concept of “unknown user”, and even if it is unknown, the one who distributes the information from this user is to blame. The question is how MPs explain an unknown user, since nearly all Internet users fall under this definition. It looks like those who wrote the draft law are aware of only Facebook. Yes, the latter one is unique because during the registration process you are required to provide reliable personal data. No other social network has similar requirements. Moreover, blogger’s platforms allow a single e-mail address (e-mail account) to run dozens of blogs. At the same time, you can hide the authorship. There are logical explanations for why people often want to remain anonymous, and are not willing to disclose their personal data. This may be due to a variety of aspects of the socio-political life. 11 years ago the Council of Europe, referring to freedom of speech in the Internet, introduced the principle of anonymity in a separate clause: anonymity is one of the principles of freedom of speech in the Internet. It is an anonymous chat that allows people to bypass repressive laws in a particular country.
– But, on the other hand, anonymity often leads to the fact that racial or ethnic intolerance is promoted in social networks, people use swear words. What about this?
– Any social platform, including social network, gives you an opportunity to complain to the administration of such violations. Very often openly racist posts are simply removed. Naturally, the administration of social networks is not able to read everything, but it is ready to remove trash in case of complaints. If the violations are repeated, accounts can be deleted. The problem is that, to my mind, this draft law is based on certain very specific cases, unfortunately. That is, we are dealing with a decision on a general issue, but there is a feeling that a couple of MPs took offense at some remarks in social networks or on websites. Meanwhile, the issue lies in an entirely different plane: today Armenia has lots of non-professional news sites that, for example, simply retype Facebook statuses with or without any comments, any analysis. Someone up-dated a status and journalist reprinted it, which definitely has nothing to do with journalism.
But this is a completely different problem. Here MPs mixed up some personal offenses against the media and attempt to regulate the Internet, which may lead to extremely negative consequences. When the law has poorly defined concepts that can be arbitrarily reformulated, the courts are able to use this law as repressive. And it becomes a weapon not only against media but also against all active Internet users and bloggers.
– What stage discussion of the draft law is now at?
– It was presented by the media a couple of days ago. Fortunately, it became a high-profile case in the media community, and the authors of the draft are now talking about their openness and willingness to public debate.
– What percentage of Armenia’s citizens uses the Internet and is able to receive information through the network?
– There are few studies on this issue, official data and independent researches that are somewhat different. However, the general number varies between 53% and 66% of the citizens, which is pretty impressive. Moreover, Armenia is one of the leading countries on surfing the Internet, among the Commonwealth of Independent States.
– Print media yields position to new media. How soon do you think will it extinct in Armenia?
– Speaking of the print media, magazines, having the ability to keep up circulation, should be mentioned, since it is easier for them to build a new financial model. But when we talk about newspapers, Armenia is facing their decreasing number. However, the newspapers don’t disappear at all, but convert into online media. Moreover, new widescreen media are emerging: today even newspapers broadcast in the Internet. While, the paper as storage medium is too expensive. Naturally, newspapers will gradually extinct, but as a concept newspaper will not disappear. It will be based online, instead.
INTERNAL INVESTIGATION CALLED OFF
The RA Police have called off the internal investigation on the incident of impeding the activities of Ani Gevorgian, correspondent of “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun” newspaper, and Sargis Gevorgian, cameraman of the iLur.am, by police officers.
As Ani Gevorgian reported, the internal investigation of the Police was terminated due to the institution by the RA Special Investigative Service of criminal case under Art. 164, part 2 (“Impending the legitimate professional activities of a journalist by an abuse of power on part of a state official”) and Art. 309, part 2 (“Abuse of office, combined with the use of violence”) of RA Criminal Code.
As we have reported, on February 12, Ani Gevorgian and Sargis Gevorgian were filming a public campaign of the Armenian National Congress in downtown Yerevan. They were arrested and taken to the police station, where they were held for about four hours. Police officers took away journalists’ cameras and mistreated them. In particular, the chief of Kentron Police Department slapped Ani Gevorgian. The journalist turned to Special Investigative Service to report about a crime. In particular, the statement reported three episodes: the attempt of a policeman to seize forcibly Ani Gevorgian’s camera during the public meeting; seizing of the memory card from her camera at the Kentron Police Department of Yerevan; and violence, applied to the journalist, by the head of the Kentron Police Department. The criminal case was initiated on February 25 (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, February 25 – March 3, 2014).
AND NOW THE INVESTIGATOR IS SICK
On March 3, in the Court of General Jurisdiction of Kentron and Nork-Marash Administrative Districts of Yerevan, hearings on a complaint, filed by Argishti Kivirian, the coordinator of ARMENIA TODAY, were to begin. He appealed the decision of the RA Special Investigative Service (SIS) not to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers who beat the journalist during the civil protest on August 24, 2013 against construction of a residential building in Yerevan.
According to the journalist, law enforcement officers beat him in a police car, which took him to the police station, and then he was taken to a hospital with scratches and bruises on his face in an ambulance. Special Investigative Service, where all the materials related to the incident were sent, considered unproven committing violent actions by the police against the journalist. The agency qualified a statement, filed by Argishti Kivirian, as false denunciation (later this charge was dropped from the journalist, without any explanation).
According to investigative body, Kivirian hurt himself, but not police officers. Meanwhile, a criminal case was opened against Argishti Kivirian – based on the police officer statement claiming that the journalist hit him. At the moment, a litigation over the criminal case against Armenia Today coordinator, who is accused of using violence against a representative of the authorities, is taking place (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, February 25 – March 3, 2014).
At the March 3 court session, testimonies of an SIS investigator, who conducted the investigation of the incident, were to be heard. However, the investigator did not come to the court due to poor health (hearing adjourned to March 19).
Lusineh Saakian, lawyer of Argishti Kivirian, believes that “we are dealing with a deliberate delaying of consideration of the case”. She also stresses that the protesting party submitted to the court enough material to make a decision, and investigator’s testimony would add nothing new to them. According to Kivirian, the police cannot decide how to behave and tries to work out a new strategy. That is why a police officer, who is a “victim”, or a SIS investigator falls ill (as cited in ARMENIA Today, March 3, 2014).
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE ABOUT FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND PRESS IN ARMENIA
The U.S. Department of State released the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013, prepared by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
One of the sections of the Armenian country report touches upon the rights to freedom of speech and press, which “the government did not always uphold”: “There were multiple incidents of violence toward journalists in connection with the February 18 presidential election, the May 5 municipal elections, and citizens’ protests throughout the year.”
The report cites the dismissal of Armen Dulyan, the news anchor of the “Shant” TV channel, as an example of violation of the right to freedom of speech. He was fired after he posted on his Facebook page a comment, assessed by the management of “Shant” as insulting: “Many journalists criticized the dismissal, noting that the incident appeared to substantiate the accusation that ‘Shant’ TV was under government control and intolerant of free speech and thought.”
The Department of State believes that except for the four-week official campaign periods preceding the February presidential and May municipal elections, when broadcast media provided diverse and objective media coverage, traditional media for the most part continued to lack diversity of political opinion and objective reporting.
The report also mentions that during 2013 the government did not carry out its promise to release the audit of the country’s television and radio frequencies that provided the technical basis for limiting the number of digital broadcasting licenses it will permit after the country switches from analog to digital transmission, planned for 2015. On June 19, the National Assembly adopted amendments to the Law “On Television and Radio” that delayed by six months the suspension of analog broadcasting initially scheduled for January 1, 2015.
Online media were the primary alternative source of information, and unlike broadcast media, provided diverse political opinions. The government did not generally control their content, the State Department stressed.
The State Department has also cited several incidents of violence against reporters covering the February 18 presidential and May 5 municipal elections and the ongoing citizens’ protests throughout the year. In particular, it has mentioned the attack on April 23 on Hakob Karapetian, reporter of iLur.am, trying to film a campaign rally, and obstructing by the police the work of journalists covering a protest action, held on May 18 by relatives of the soldier, killed at one of the military units.
According to the authors of the report, media outlets, particularly broadcasters, feared reprisals for reporting critical of the government: “Such reprisals could include lawsuits, the threat of losing a broadcast license, selective tax investigation, or loss of revenue when advertisers learned an outlet was in disfavor with the government. Fear of retribution led to a high degree of media self-censorship.”
The report also mentioned the November 15, 2011 recommendation by the RA Constitutional Court that courts avoid levying disproportionately heavy fines in libel and defamation cases resulted in smaller damages awarded to those who sued media outlets.