RFE/RL Armenian Report – 04/05/2019

                                        Friday, 

Opposition Leaders Question Government Crackdown On ‘Fake News’

        • Naira Bulghadarian
        • Naira Nalbandian

Armenia - Bright Armenia Party leader Edmon Marukian (R) at a news conference 
in Yerevan, March 27, 2019.

Leaders of the opposition minority in Armenia’s parliament questioned on Friday 
a crackdown on false news reports and social media comments ordered by Prime 
Minister Nikol Pashinian.

One of them, Bright Armenia Party (LHK) leader Edmon Marukian, expressed 
concern over the order, while admitting that slanderous and offensive public 
statements have become commonplace in the country.

“There is definitely concern regarding freedom of speech,” Marukian told 
RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I can’t imagine the methods with which it is 
possible to fight against fake news.”

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Pashinian ordered the National 
Security Service (NSS) crack down on anyone who uses mass media or social media 
to “manipulate public opinion.” He singled out “fake” social media users making 
untrue claims on government policies or calling for violence.

Asked to comment on the order, Marukian said: “I can’t imagine how that is 
going to be done. When concrete steps are taken with regard to 
counterpropaganda waged against us I will welcome it.”

Marukian referred to what he described as online smear campaigns targeting 
senior members of his party. He said law-enforcement authorities recently 
opened a criminal case in connection with threats and verbal abuse reported by 
the LHK.

“Let’s see what happens now,” added the LHK leader. “But I want to say that 
fighting against that is very difficult. It also raises the issue of protecting 
freedom of speech and many other concerns.”


Armenia - Gevorg Petrosian, a parliament deputy from the Prosperous Armenia 
Party, at a news briefing in Yerevan, April 1, 2019.

Gevorg Petrosian, a senior lawmaker representing the opposition Prosperous 
Armenia Party (BHK), also complained about the “hooligan atmosphere” on social 
media. He wondered if Pashinian decided to deal with the problem now because of 
a “change in the correlation of fake news” which is not favorable for the 
Armenian government.

Petrosian also said that the problem must be tackled by the Armenian police, 
not the NSS. “The NSS has much more important things to do than to deal with 
fake news,” he added.

Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, echoed the opposition 
concerns, saying that his office will closely monitor NSS actions to make sure 
that they do not limit press freedom. “I want to stress that the monitoring 
will be at the center of my personal attention,” Tatoyan told reporters.

All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia about a decade ago.

Justice Minister Artak Zeynalian insisted, meanwhile, that the authorities want 
to target only those who spread offensive and false statements that “threaten 
national security.”

“If you look at separate instances you may not see abuse of freedom of 
expression,” he said. “But if you look at the bigger picture and see that that 
is being managed from a center and [those reports] are interconnected, they can 
receive such an evaluation.”

Zeynalian could not say just how the authorities will be combatting the 
“manipulations” mentioned by Pashinian. “We don’t yet have a formula regarding 
it,” admitted the minister.

Pashinian demanded the NSS crackdown after lambasting unnamed “former 
oligarchs” who he said falsely accuse his government of pushing up fuel prices 
in the country with its taxation policies.



No Charges For Kocharian Over 1998 ‘Election Fraud’

        • Naira Bulghadarian

Armenia - Former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian is released from 
custody, 25 June, 2018.

An Armenian law-enforcement agency has refused to launch a formal criminal 
investigation into allegations to that former President Robert Kocharian rigged 
a presidential election to come to power in 1998.

Vahan Shirkhanian, who was a deputy defense minister at the time, made the 
allegations in an incriminating open letter to Kocharian released last month. 
He claimed that Karen Demirchian, Armenia’s Soviet-era leader, was the rightful 
winner of the two-round election held in February-March 1998.

Demirchian refused to concede defeat, alleging widespread fraud strongly denied 
by Kocharian and his allies. Western election monitors reported serious 
irregularities during the ballot.

Shirkhanian stood by his claims when he was questioned by the Special 
Investigative Service (SIS) later in March.

The SIS said on Friday that it will not open a criminal case because of the 
statute of limitations. It also refused to act on Shirkhanian’s claims that 
Kocharian was not eligible to run for president in the first place. The SIS 
explained that similar allegations made in the past were investigated by 
law-enforcement authorities and proved unsubstantiated.

Shirkhanian accepted the SIS explanations, while deploring the fact that 
Kocharian will not be prosecuted for vote rigging.


ARMENIA -- Then Armenian President Robert Kocharian talks to the media at a 
polling station in Yerevan, February 19, 2008

The ex-president, who ruled Armenia for ten years, was arrested in December on 
different coup charges which he rejects as politically motivated.

During the 1998 presidential race, Shirkhanian was a figure close to then 
Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, arguably the country’s most powerful man. 
Sarkisian and Demirchian subsequently co-founded a political alliance that won 
parliamentary elections held in May 1999.

Sarkisian became prime minister while Demirchian parliament speaker as a 
result. Both leaders as well as six other officials were killed in the October 
1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament.

In his open letter, Shirkhanian also accused Kocharian of covering up the 
attack. For his part, the ex-president claimed in a memoir published in 2018 
that Shirkhanian tried to use the shock assassination to replace him as head of 
state.

In 2015, Shirkhanian was arrested and charged with plotting to seize power 
together with members of a clandestine militant group led by Artur Vartanian, 
an obscure man who had reportedly lived in Spain for many years. He, Vartanian 
and about two dozen other individuals went on trial a few months later.


Armenia - An alleged 2015 photograph of members of an Armenian militant group 
arrested on coup charges.

The National Security Service (NSS) said at the time that Vartanian and his 
associates drew up detailed plans for the seizure of the presidential 
administration, government, parliament, Constitutional Court and state 
television buildings in Yerevan. It claimed that Shirkhanian agreed to 
participate in the alleged plot and suggested in 2015 that the armed group 
assassinate then President Serzh Sarkisian, instead of focusing on the seizure 
of the key state buildings.

Shirkhanian denied the accusations as politically motivated. He was released 
from custody in June 2018 pending the outcome of the high-profile trial. 
Vartanian and core members of his group remain behind bars.



Tax Authorities Move To Arrest Armenian Tycoon

        • Sargis Harutyunyan

Armenia - Businessman Davit Ghazarian (C) shows Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian 
around a newly built dairy factory of his Spayka company, Yerevan, March 26, 
2019.

Ten days after inaugurating a new factory in the presence of Prime Minister 
Nikol Pashinian, the official owner of Armenia’s leading freight and 
agribusiness company faced on Friday tax evasion charges which he strongly 
denied.

The State Revenue Committee (SRC) said that the Spayka company evaded over 7 
billion drams ($14.4 million) in import taxes as it asked a court in Yerevan to 
allow the pre-trial arrest of Davit Ghazarian.

In a statement, the SRC said that the accusations stem from large quantities of 
cheese and agricultural produce which were imported to Armenia by another 
company, Greenproduct, in 2015 and 2016. It claimed that Greenproduct is 
controlled by Spayka and that the latter rigged its customs documents to pay 
less taxes from those imports.

The court held hearings on the SRC demand later in the day. Ghazarian’s lawyer, 
Karen Sardarian, told reporters that the court will announce its decision on 
Monday.

Ghazarian angrily denied the accusations and accused the authorities of 
“paralyzing” his company’s operations at a news conference held before the 
court hearings. He insisted that Spayka is not connected to Greenproduct and 
has only carried out cargo shipments for it.


Armenia - A greenhouse belonging to the Spayka company, November 13, 2018.
The businessman said that she was charged because he refused to pay 
Greenproduct’s back taxes after being summoned to the SRC late on 
Thursday.“They told me, ‘Either you will sign [a relevant document] or be 
arrested,’” he claimed. “I view this as Spayka’s persecution by the SRC … 
because nobody from Greenproduct is willing to pay up.”

Ghazarian implied that Pashinian had a hand in the criminal charges brought 
against him. “He [the SRC chief] went to the boss and told him that we owe 7 
billion drams,” he said. “The boss, our prime minister, whom we all respect, 
said that ‘if they owe the money then they must pay it.’”

As recently as on March 26, Pashinian visited Spayka’s sprawling premises in 
Yerevan’s southern Noragavit suburb to attend the inauguration of a 
state-of-the-art dairy factory built there. Ghazarian showed him around the 
facility.

A March 26 statement by the prime minister’s office gave details of the $15 
million business project. “120 new jobs have been created under the project,” 
it stressed.

Ghazarian said that Spayka planned to invest another $100 million this year. 
The Kazakhstan-based Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) has already frozen planned 
funding for the project because of the tax fraud case, he said.


Armenia - Heavy trucks belonging to the Spayka company are parked in Yerevan, 
April 19, 2017.

Spayka was set up in 2001 and has since become Armenia’s leading producer and 
exporter of fruits, vegetables and some prepared foodstuffs. The company 
currently employs more than 1,200 people mostly working in its greenhouses and 
buys produce from thousands of Armenian farmers. It also has a large fleet of 
heavy trucks.

Ownership of Spayka has long been a subject of Armenian media speculation. Some 
media outlets have linked it to the family of former President Robert Kocharian 
and his successor Serzh Sarkisian’s son-in-law, Mikael Minasian. Ghazarian 
again asserted on Friday that he is the company’s sole real owner and has no 
“business relationship” with Minasian.

Spayka was already fined about 2.5 billion drams ($5 million) for profit tax 
evasion in July last year, two months after Sarkisian’s resignation and 
Pashinian’s rise to power. The company agreed to pay the fine at the time.

Ghazarian claimed on Friday that that SRC penalty was also unfair and that he 
agreed to pay it in order to have Spayka’s bank accounts unfrozen.



First Arrest Reported In Armenian ‘Fake News Probe’

        • Marine Khachatrian

Armenia - Artur Vanetsian, director of the National Security Service (NSS), 
speaks to journalists in Yerevan, 18 June 2018.

Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said on Friday that it has arrested a 
person spreading “disinformation” on Facebook as part of a crackdown ordered by 
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The NSS director, Artur Vanetsian, said that individual had opened and “hid 
behind” a Facebook page called “Dukhov Hayastan Open Society.” He declined to 
identify him or her.

The page, which has more than 2,200 followers, mainly contains derogatory posts 
on Pashinian and his associates. It was most recently updated on Thursday 
evening.

“There is a well-known Facebook page which spreads clear disinformation,” 
Vanetsian told reporters. “It is the ‘Dukhov Hayastan Open Society’ which all 
users know very well. The individual hiding behind that page has been 
identified and arrested.”

“A criminal case regarding the spread of racial, religious and ethnic hatred 
has been opened. Other details will be provided by the NSS press center,” he 
said.

Pashinian on Thursday ordered Vanetsian to clamp down on “criminal circles” 
that he said “spend millions on manipulating public opinion through the press 
and social media.” “That’s a matter of national security,” he said, singling 
out “fake” social media users.

“The instruction regarding fake users issued by the prime minister has been 
executed,” Vanetsian declared when he announced the first arrest in the 
crackdown demanded by Pashinian.


Armenia -- Shushan Doydoyan, head of the Center for Freedom of Information, 
April 5, 2019

Some opposition politicians and civil rights activists have expressed concern 
about Pashinian’s order, saying that it poses a threat to freedom of expression 
in Armenia.

Shushan Doydoyan, the head of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of 
Information, on Friday criticized it as hasty and unfounded. The NSS, which is 
the successor to the Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB secret police, must not 
deal with mass or social media content in any way, she said.

“There is no clear legal definition of what information can be deemed 
manipulative,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “This [order] enables 
any state body and the NSS in particular to arbitrarily decide whether a 
particular report is manipulative or not.”

Doydoyan also said there is nothing wrong with citizens opening anonymous or 
fake social media accounts to protect their privacy. She argued that Armenian 
law provides for libel suits against anyone who makes offensive or slanderous 
public statements.

“Why do we want to complicate the situation?” said Doydoyan. “We must avoid 
resorting to any tough, crude legal interventions and creating an atmosphere of 
fear.”



Press Review



“Zhamanak” reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had telephone 
conversations with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijan’s 
President Ilham Aliyev following their March 29 meeting in Vienna. The Russian 
Foreign Ministry said after those phone calls that Moscow is ready to help the 
two leaders implement agreements reached by them in the Austrian capital. The 
paper suggests that Aliyev and Pashinian may have only agreed to continue to 
observe the ceasefire and that the Russians will help the warring sides prevent 
major truce violations.

Lragir.am says that after the Vienna summit Yerevan and Baku “reaffirmed their 
opposite approaches” to the Karabakh settlement. “Azerbaijan maintains that it 
will restore its territorial integrity and refuses to discuss [Karabakh’s] 
status, while the Armenian side says that Artsakh’s status and security are the 
key issues of a settlement,” explains the publication. “The negotiating process 
has returned to a period of hiatus.” It notes Putin’s phone calls with Aliyev 
and Pashinian, saying that the leaders of the two other mediating powers, the 
United States and France, did not personally react to the latest 
Armenian-Azerbaijani summit. The publication too believes that Moscow is most 
probably keen to bolster the ceasefire regime in the conflict zone.

“Zhoghovurd” comments on Pashinian’s calls for “very harsh” government action 
against individuals who he said “manipulate public opinion” through mass and 
social media. The paper says that the best way to combat fake news is to 
increase people’s “media literacy.” “Especially in a country which is in a 
state of war and whose citizens can be targets of various propaganda and 
sabotage ploys and other criminal practices,” it says. “This is what the 
National Security Service (NSS) should focus its resources on because it is 
obliged to guarantee not only the physical but also information security of 
citizens.”

“Haykakan Zhamanak” voices strong support for Pashinian’s declared campaign 
against “fake news,” saying that they pose a threat to national security. The 
paper edited by Pashinian’s wife, Anna Hakobian, says that false reports about 
Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks could negatively affect the combat readiness 
of Armenia’s armed forces. It says the authorities should also crack down on 
those who falsely predict an imminent depreciation of the national currency.

(Lilit Harutiunian)


Reprinted on ANN/Armenian News with permission from RFE/RL
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1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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