Armenia

By Skyler Jennings

Flag_of_Armenia.svg

Flag of Armenia

I. Introduction

Armenia is ranked 74 in the World Press Freedom Index, showing minor growth since its ranking of 90 in 2002.[1] Protestors and journalists face violence from police and illegal arrests, despite the country’s constitution guaranteeing both freedoms. The broadcast media is faced with governmental control ranging anywhere from subject matter to the ability to broadcast at all. For many years, Armenians had to seek justice in the European Court of Human Rights when their freedoms were compromised. However, in recent years the country has made improvements to protect free speech and free press through new legislation. The government decriminalized libel and passed legislation guaranteeing journalists’ sources are protected. If these trends continue, and the laws are upheld, Armenia faces a brighter future.

II. Historical Background

The Republic of Armenia is an independent republic located in southwestern Asia, landlocked by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Hrazdan River “produces most of the hydroelectric energy available in the country and supplies the drinking water for the capital city of Yerevan.”[2] Lake Sevan is the largest lake in Armenia and is the main source for the country’s irrigation system.[3] The arid country is mostly mountains, with the Plain of Ararat as the primary agricultural center,[4] and is abundant in gold, silver, copper, iron, and minor metals.[5] The country’s climate ranges from subtropical to alpine depending on the area of the country.[6] The current population is about 3 million with 98 percent of the population ethnically Armenian.[7]  The majority of the population belongs to the Armenian Orthodox Church.[8] Armenia is a semi-presidential republic and has a civil law system.[9] The current chief of state is President Serzh Sargsyan, who has been in office since 2008.[10]

The country has been “conquered or dominated by the Persians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, and more recently, the Ottoman Turks and Russians.”[11] The present-day location of Armenia was formerly the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.[12] Prior to Soviet rule, Armenia was caught up in Russian and Turkish fighting during World War I. Turkey gained control of the country and violence against Armenians increased as the war continued.[13] It is estimated that 1.5 million deaths resulted from massacres and famine during “the physical destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire,”[14] recognized by some historians as the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government has continued to “adamantly and consistently deny that any genocide was committed against the Armenians”[15] “saying the [death] toll has been inflated, and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.”[16] This dispute prompted the countries of France, Switzerland and Cyprus to pass laws making the “denial of any historically proven massacre a crime.”[17] These ‘genocide denial laws’ brought up issues concerning free speech violations, leading France to repeal their law criminalizing denial.[18]

III. Free Speech

Armenia’s constitution states in Article 27 that “everyone shall have the right to freely express his/her opinion” but goes on to limit that in specific instances.[19] One specific instance occurs when a citizen works for the government. Article 24 in ‘The Law of the Republic of Armenia on Civil Servants’ says, “the Civil Servant shall not have the right to: implement violations of the principle of the political restraint of the Civil Servants, that is, to use his/her service position in the interests of parties, non-governmental organizations, including religious associations, proselytize in their favor or implement other political or religious activities while carrying out his/her service duties.”[20] This law was important in the decision of Karapetyan and Others v. Armenia, a case that involved four Armenian civil servants who held high ranks in the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The four civil servants “had issued a public statement criticizing the government in the aftermath of the Armenian presidential election of February 2008”[21] in which Serzh Sargsyan won, replacing President Kocharian. Their joint statement expressed their anger over the presidential election which was teeming with fraud and rigging rumors. Many believed that “tactics were used to achieve the victory of Kocharian’s chosen successor, Serzh Sargsyan.”[22] All four of their names and respective government titles appeared under the statement.[23] Several mass media outlets reported on the statement and within a couple of weeks the civil servants were dismissed from office. The Armenian government dismissed the workers because they had violated the previously mentioned law, Article 24 of ‘The Law of the Republic of Armenia on Civil Servants.’ The workers challenged this saying that they had not violated the law and that their freedom of expression had been violated. The Administrative Court in Armenia dismissed their claim because the workers had engaged in political activity when they issued the statement. The court also said that the workers’ inclusion of their jobs titles was a misuse of their positions to make a statement. The court’s final decision was that the Armenian government had legally dismissed the workers and followed the constitution. In November 2008, the case made its way to the European Court of Human Rights with the workers maintaining their dismissal violated their freedom of expression. “The Court found in particular that, though civil servants are entitled to freedom of expression, national authorities may restrict their freedom to engage in political activities in order to achieve the aim of having a politically neutral body of civil servants” in a six to one decision.[24]

While Armenia’s constitution regarding freedom of assembly has changed throughout the years, it has always included some form of the right to assemble. The most recent amendment of the constitution includes Article 29 which guarantees “everyone shall have the right to freedom of peaceful and unarmed assembly.”[25] The government, however, has a history of and continues to deny this right.

One instance occurred in April 2004 at protests that stemmed from the March 2003 election of President Robert Kocharian. A month after the presidential election the opposing candidate, Stepan Demirchian, filed a lawsuit with Armenia’s Constitutional Court challenging the validity of the election results because many of his supporters had been illegally detained during the voting period. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election failed to meet international standards because there was a lack of “determination by the authorities to ensure a fair and honest process.”[26]  The Court ruled that while the detentions violated Armenia’s obligations under international law the election results would still stand.[27] The Court instead “recommended that the government hold a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian within a year.”[28] The Armenian government rejected the decision for a referendum, and as the one year deadline in April 2004 approached, citizens held protests demanding the government listen to the court or the president step down. During the protest, police “began throwing into the crowd stun grenades”[29] while “other police beat the protesters with batons and shocked them with electric prods.”[30] In the Council of Europe’s 2004 PACE Resolution, they called upon the Armenian government “to take resolute and more active steps to remedy misconduct by law enforcement officials, especially acts of violence.”[31]

The Armenian government also has a history of illegally arresting protestors, like in Mkrtchyan v. Armenia. This case originated in May 2002, when Armen Mkrtchyan was arrested “after actively participating in an unsanctioned rally in Yerevan,” the capital of Armenia.[32] He was detained and then released after paying a fine of 500 drams. Mkrtchyan took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in November 2002 on the basis that the Armenian police had detained and fined him under a Soviet-era Armenian law, which he believed was “no longer valid and applicable in Armenia following its independence.”[33] In January 2007, the “panel of seven European Court judges…unanimously accepted”[34] his arguments in the Court’s “first-ever ruling relating to Armenia.”[35] The court ruled “there had been a violation of Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights.”[36] The court judgment was that “the interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of peaceful assembly was not prescribed by law” because “there was no domestic provision which clearly stated whether the former USSR laws remained or did not remain in force on the territory of Armenia.”[37] Under the court’s just satisfaction article, it “held that the finding of a violation constituted in itself sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicant” meaning Mkrtchyan couldn’t seek any money for pain and suffering because the court’s finding was sufficient. While Mkrtchyan could have sought compensation for his 500-dram fine, he chose not to.

The police violence and illegal arrests described in the previous two cases can both be found in Saghatelyan v. Armenia. This case revolves around the presidential election of 2008 and the violent protest that followed. The applicant, Saghatelyan, claims he was leaving the protest in a taxi when the taxi driver forced him and other passengers out of the car and back into the protest.[38] Once on the street, 15 masked police officers beat him and the other passengers with rubber batons, claiming the protestors became violent after they were asked to leave.[39] Saghatelyan claims this is not true and that he was taking part of a peaceful protest when police officers began to beat them with rubber batons with no warning.[40] He was arrested for “having organized and conducted” “unlawful public events, demonstrations, 24-hour long rallies, pickets and sit‑ins which disturbed the normal life, traffic and functioning of public and private institutions and involved calls inciting a violent overthrow of the government and public insults at public officials.”[41] The Yerevan Criminal Court found Saghatelyan guilty and fined him 900,000 Armenian drams and sentenced him to five years in prison.[42] He lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in April 2008 and the case was communicated in November 2010.[43] As of today, the case is still pending in the European Court of Human Rights.

IV. Free Press

Armenia’s constitution states that “freedom of mass media and other means of mass information” is guaranteed in Article 27.[44] The same article goes on to say that the government guarantees that independent and public radio and television services will exist. However, the way in which the article is worded suggests that the government guarantees independent media will exist, but that the government will still control which independent media companies will exist. This careful wording and other laws have striped media companies in Armenia from being completely independent, and even from existing.

One such case is Meltex Ltd and Mesrop Movsesyan v. Armenia. In April 2002, one of Armenia’s top independent television stations, A1+, had their license cancelled by the National Broadcasting Commission.[45] Media professionals said that they believe the National Broadcasting Commission could not be considered independent as most of its members had been appointed by the president of Armenia.[46] The Commission’s reasoning behind their decision to cancel the station’s license was because “the plans presented by A1+…were not good enough” and instead gave the television frequency license to an entertainment station.[47] Some believe the cancellation of A1+ was politically motivated as the time of cancellation was right before the 2003 presidential elections and the station was frequently critical of the government.[48] The station tried again the following year to get a license, but was rejected once more. In 2004, the station took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. The court came to a unanimous decision in 2008 that the Armenian government had violated Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and awarded the station 30,000 euros for damages and expenses.[49] Many were critical that the court didn’t further their decision to include requiring the Armenian government give A1+ their frequency back. The company is now internet-based.

Like broadcast media in Armenia, newspapers companies also face censorship. Libel suits against newspapers in Armenia occur so often they lead journalists to self-censor in fear of retaliation. For many years, libel was punishable by imprisonment. In May 2010, the National Assembly of Armenia decriminalized libel, opting instead for a sizable fine to be the punishment.[50] While the fear of jail time is no longer a threat, many journalists and media companies instead fear hefty fines. Reporters Without Borders said, “there were 12 defamation actions during the first quarter of 2011” and that the plaintiffs in most cases are politicians.[51] There are a few notable cases from 2011 involving news companies being sued.

One case was against the news website Hetq Investigative Journalists, a non-governmental organization. The website had published several articles alleging that local officials like Mayor Tavush Marz were embezzling. The Armenian court ordered the website pay the mayor 450,000 drams and publish a retraction.[52]

Another case involved the family of the former president of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, suing the Armenian news website Jamanak. The company sued by Kocharian’s wife and son for 6 million drams over an article alleging they were involved in an embezzlement case.[53]

One last notable case involved three members of Armenia’s parliamentary. They sued the newspaper Haykakan Jamanak for 2,440,000 drams and won. The three men had issues with their names being in an article that listed government officials and businessmen who were allegedly involved in criminal activity.[54] These were just a few cases of libel suits against news outlets in Armenia; there are many more. If this trend continues, so will the trend to practice self-censorship.

In 2014, Armenian journalist Kristine Khanumian faced jail time for refusing to name her sources. This was a landmark case for Armenia, as it was “the first time in Armenia that a journalist ha[d] been prosecuted for refusing to name a source.”[55] Khanumian was the editor of the news website Ilur.am when it published an article saying that an Armenian police officer had attacked two people. When an Armenian court ordered Ilur.am reveal their sources, Khanumian refused, in order to protect them. She was charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code and was facing up to two years in prison, as well as heavy fines.[56] Eventually, her case was dismissed by Armenia’s general prosecutor in 2015, but the fight to protect sources didn’t end there. Hraparak, another newspaper that was ordered to reveal their sources from a similar article, went to Armenia’s constitutional court to try to get the law that ordered they reveal their sources declared unconstitutional.[57] In October 2015, the court ruled that the confidentiality of journalists’ sources was protected.[58] This was a major victory in Armenia for press freedoms.

V. Critical Comparison

The Armenian police have a history of illegally arresting peaceful protestors, such as in the case Mkrtchyan v. Armenia, discussed previously. In the United States, there have been similar issues, notably Edwards v. South Carolina. In Mkrtchyan v. Armenia, the Armenian police used an outdated Soviet-era law to arrest a peaceful protestor. The protestor eventually had his case heard by the European Court of Human Rights who ruled that his arrest was illegal. This case is very similar to the United States Supreme Court case Edwards v. South Carolina. In this case, the applicants were 187 marchers involved in a 1961 segregation protest who were arrested after they refused to stop protesting.[59] They were arrested for breach of the peace in South Carolina, which the Supreme Court found to be a violation of their constitutional right to free assembly because there wasn’t any proof they became violent. The applicant in Mkrtchyan v. Armenia won because there wasn’t an Armenian law allowing for his arrest, while the applicants in Edwards v. South Carolina won because they weren’t violating the law for which they were arrested. The two cases are slightly different in that regard, but they both deal with freedom of assembly rights. However, the applicant in Mkrtchyan v. Armenia only won his case after bringing it to the European Court of Human Rights, while the applicants in Edwards v. South Carolina won in the U.S. Supreme Court. This means that the United States guarantees more freedom of assembly than Armenia does.

Libel suits against newspapers in Armenia are all too common. They usually involve a politician or government official suing a newspaper over defamation. All too often, they win their case and the newspapers must pay a hefty fine. In the United States, however, the freedom of the press is a well-protected freedom. One notable case is New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. This case involved the newspaper, The New York Times, publishing an ad in which an Alabama politician felt defamed his name though it was never actually included in the ad.[60] He sued the newspaper as well as the creators of the ad, and won in Alabama. The New York Times Co. brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There the court ruled that the First Amendment protected statements made about a politician’s conduct as long as the statements aren’t made with actual malice. This means that the press can make statements about politicians as long as the statements aren’t published with the knowledge that they are false. In Armenia, this strong press protection doesn’t exist. There are many cases in Armenia in which newspapers have been sued by the politicians they report about, and have had to pay heavy fines. If these cases were in the United States, the newspapers would have won the cases against them.

VI. Conclusion

The United States protects the freedom of speech and press more than the Republic of Armenia. Armenia on paper guarantees these freedoms, but the actions of the government prove they don’t actively protect them. The country has made improvements over the years, such as decriminalizing libel, but it has more to do to guarantee the rights it includes in its constitution.  Many Armenian applicants must bring their cases to the European Court of Human Rights to prove their case. The United States and the Republic of Armenia both guarantee the same basic rights, but only the United States has a track record of protecting them. 

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.


[1] “Reporters Without Borders” Armenia, https://rsf.org/en/armenia.

[2] Adalian, Rouben P. Historical Dictionary of Armenia, ed. Jon Woronoff vol. 41 of Asian/Oceanian Historical Dictionaries (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), lxii.

[3] James Minahan, Miniature Empires: A Historical Dictionary of the Newly Independent States (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998), 2.

[4] Adalian, Rouben P. Historical Dictionary of Armenia, ed. Jon Woronoff vol. 41 of Asian/Oceanian Historical Dictionaries (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), lxii.

[5] George H. Filian, Armenia and Her People (Hartford, Connecticut: American Publishing Company, 1896), 24.

[6] Adalian, Rouben P. Historical Dictionary of Armenia, ed. Jon Woronoff vol. 41 of Asian/Oceanian Historical Dictionaries (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), lxiii.

[7] The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency. Continually updated. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html.

[8] James Minahan, Miniature Empires: A Historical Dictionary of the Newly Independent States (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998), 3.

[9] The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency. Continually updated. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jon Woronoff, foreword to Historical Dictionary of Armenia (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012), ix.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Armenia.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2016): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2017).

[14] Kévorkian, Raymond H. Armenian Genocide, The: A Complete History. London: I.B.Tauris, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2017).

[15] Aida Alayarian, Consequences of Denial: The Armenian Genocide (London: Karnac Books Ltd, 2008), 4.

[16] The Associated, Press. “Cyprus amends law to criminalize Armenian genocide denial.” AP Top News Package (April 2, 2015): Points of View Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2017).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Quluzade, Orkhan. “BRIEF: French council repeals law on “Armenian genocide” denial.” Trend News Agency, January 27, 2017., Points of View Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed February 13, 2017).

[19] Republic of Armenia. National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia. Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia. Yerevan, Armenia: Republic of Armenia, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://www.parliament.am/law_docs5/Constitution_06.12.2015.pdf.

[20] Republic of Armenia. Robert Kocharyan. The Law of the Republic of Armenia on Civil Service. Yerevan, Armenia: Republic of Armenia, 2001. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.parliament.am/law_docs/271201HO272eng.pdf?lang=eng.

[21] “Dismissal of Armenian civil servants who had been critical of the Government had not violated their right to freedom of expression.” Orer, November 18, 2016. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://orer.eu/en/dismissal-of-armenian-civil-servants-who-had-been-critical-of-the-government-had-not-violated-their-right-to-freedom-of-expression/.

[22] Valerie J. Bunce and Sharon L. Wolchik, Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 190.

[23] “Dismissal of Armenian civil servants who had been critical of the Government had not violated their right to freedom of expression.” Orer, November 18, 2016. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://orer.eu/en/dismissal-of-armenian-civil-servants-who-had-been-critical-of-the-government-had-not-violated-their-right-to-freedom-of-expression/.

[24] European Court of Human Rights, “Dismissal of Armenian civil servants who had been critical of the Government had not violated their right to freedom of expression,” press release, November 17, 2016, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng-press#{“itemid”:[“003-5550460-6993445”]}.

[25] Republic of Armenia. National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia. Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia. Yerevan, Armenia: Republic of Armenia, 2015. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://www.parliament.am/law_docs5/Constitution_06.12.2015.pdf.

[26] Presidential Election 19 February and 5 March 2003. Warsaw: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 2003. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/armenia/14054?download=true.

[27] Cycle of Repression: Human Rights Violations in Armenia. New York City: Human Rights Watch, 2004. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://www.azad-hye.net/downloads/a1/human-rights-watch-briefing-paper-2004.pdf.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1361 (2004) on Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Armenia. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe, 2004. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/research/armenia/PACE%20Resolution%201361.pdf.

[32] Ruzanna Stepanian, “European Court Faults Yerevan in Landmark Ruling,” Human Rights in Armenia, January 11, 2007, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.hra.am/en/events/2007/01/11/european_court_faults_yerevan_in_landmark_ruling.

[33] Council of Europe, “European Court of Human Rights Chamber Judgment Mkrtchyan v. Armenia,” press release, January 11, 2007, https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?p=&id=1080327&Site=COE&direct=true.

[34] Council of Europe, “European Court of Human Rights Chamber Judgment Mkrtchyan v. Armenia,” press release, January 11, 2007, https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?p=&id=1080327&Site=COE&direct=true.

[35] Ruzanna Stepanian, “European Court Faults Yerevan in Landmark Ruling,” Human Rights in Armenia, January 11, 2007, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.hra.am/en/events/2007/01/11/european_court_faults_yerevan_in_landmark_ruling.

[36] Council of Europe, “European Court of Human Rights Chamber Judgment Mkrtchyan v. Armenia,” press release, January 11, 2007, https://wcd.coe.int/ViewDoc.jsp?p=&id=1080327&Site=COE&direct=true.

[37] Ibid.

[38] European Court of Human Rights, “Saghatelyan v. Armenia” European Court of Human Rights, last modified December 2, 2010, http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-124162.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Republic of Armenia. National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia. Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia. Yerevan, Armenia: Republic of Armenia, 2015. Accessed March 27, 2017.

[45] “Two main independent TV stations still without broadcasting licences” Reporters without Borders, July 22, 2003, https://rsf.org/en/news/two-main-independent-tv-stations-still-without-broadcasting-licences.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Freedom House. Armenia: Freedom of the Press 2004. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2004/armenia.

[49] European Court of Human Rights, “Chamber Judgment Meltex Ltd and Mesrop Movsesyan v. Armenia.” Press release, June 17, 2008, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiPidDx2vfSAhVPzGMKHV3dAQAQFggaMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhudoc.echr.coe.int%2Fwebservices%2Fcontent%2Fpdf%2F003-2400697-2578431%3FTID%3Dthkbhnilzk&usg=AFQjCNGXKOZUlSb48qbIhtbPRhX8tuFATw&sig2=DuUhMi8HVgwf3ls3zmOJFw&bvm=bv.150729734,d.amc.

[50] “CPJ welcomes Armenian vote to decriminalize defamation” Committee to Protect Journalists, May 19, 2010, https://cpj.org/x/3972.

[51] “Armenian newspapers threatened by libel suits with sky-high damages awards” Reporters without Borders, May 1, 2011, https://rsf.org/en/news/armenian-newspapers-threatened-libel-suits-sky-high-damages-awards.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] “Journalist prosecuted for refusing to reveal her source” Reporters without Borders, July 21, 2015, https://rsf.org/en/news/journalist-prosecuted-refusing-reveal-her-source.

[56] “Reporters Without Borders Condemn Armenian Authorities for Prosecuting Journalist” Massispost, July 21, 2015, https://massispost.com/2015/07/reporters-without-borders-condemn-armenian-authorities-for-prosecuting-journalis/.

[57] “Journalist prosecuted for refusing to reveal her source” Reporters without Borders, July 21, 2015, https://rsf.org/en/news/journalist-prosecuted-refusing-reveal-her-source.

[58] “Reporters Without Borders” Armenia, https://rsf.org/en/armenia.

[59] Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963).

[60] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

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