Armenian authorities are moving to codify their legal ability to censor online content, block media outlets and even curb internet access under martial law.
The prospect of the government seizing emergency wartime powers is not a theoretical one for Armenia, which was defeated in the Second Karabakh War with Azerbaijan in 2020 and constantly faces the threat of renewed hostilities.
Indeed, the stated aim of a relevant bill drawn up by the Justice Ministry in December is ensuring "more effective regulation of the legal regime of martial law." It is seen as a response to criticism of the government's slapdash restrictions during the 2020 war.
But experts and human rights activists say the bill nonetheless does not establish clear criteria and could lead to the uncontrolled exercise of emergency powers.
The Justice Ministry's bill would amend the law "on the legal regime of martial law" to allow the government to block certain online media outlets, applications, and social networks, and even shut off internet access altogether, a step that has never been taken by any Armenian government. The bill envisages internet access for a select number of state institutions and strategic infrastructure facilities under martial law – though these entities are not listed in the current draft of the bill.
Media and IT consultant Artur Papyan says the government took a number of wrongheaded decisions during the last period of martial law, which was imposed the day the war started, September 27, 2020, and had its media-related provisions lifted on December 2, nearly a month after the conflict ended.
"In those days, Tik-Tok was blocked, but, for example, Telegram worked, even though malicious information spread on a much larger scale there. There were no legal grounds or criteria for making such a decision," Papyan told Eurasianet.
He said he'd asked Armenian internet service providers on what legal grounds they blocked media and social networks during the war but did not receive a clear answer. ISPs said they were required by law to cooperate with the National Security Service. "But the National Security Service simply stated that during the war it carried out actions aimed at ensuring the security of the country," Papyan said.
During the regular post-war escalations on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the fighting reliably extends into the information space. One of the Armenian government's most commonly used tools of "information warfare" is the partial or complete blocking of access to Azerbaijani media. Some outlets, among them the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry-affiliated Caliber.az, are still blocked in Armenia, despite the absence of a state of emergency.
"Azerbaijani propaganda resources are being blocked now. But this is a violation of the law," information security expert Samvel Martirosyan told Eurasianet, also noting that such bans are easily circumvented through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs.
Papyan, the media and IT consultant, worries that, while the bill would clarify the government's powers during martial law, the criteria and procedure for implementing them remain vague.
"It is still not clear what criteria this or that authorized state institution should be guided by in order to fulfill the functions assigned to it to block the media, social networks or restrict the population's access to the internet," Papyan said, suggesting that the authorities are trying to legitimize their previous decisions during the 2020 war and during the 2022 escalations.
Moreover, the draft law does not specify which state institution will make decisions on the introduction of censorship and blocking of the media, he added.
Boris Navasardyan, president of the Yerevan Press Club, shared similar concerns in an interview with Eurasianet. "The state wants to legislate its repressive functions, but without a deep study of the existing security threats and the possible negative consequences of the use of these restrictive measures against them. It seems that now the legislative foundations are being laid to legitimize these repressive functions in the future. This opens up a large field for abuse," he said.
The internet in Armenia is classed by Freedom House as "free," with a score of 74 out of 100 in its 2022 "Freedom on the Net" report. That score was a slight improvement over 2021, reflecting the lifting of restrictions in the immediate post-war period.
In July 2022 Armenia's prosecutor-general, Artur Davtyan, proposed a law that would have banned certain content in line with Russian online censorship practices. This effort appears to have been abandoned, however, and Davtyan left his post upon the expiration of his term in September.
Another critic of the martial law bill is Kristine Grigoryan, who stepped down in late January as Armenia's ombudsperson. Her main concern is that the draft amendments have not gone through proper public and professional discussion. "There is not even a preliminary consultation with the bodies that in the future should perform the functions arising from this bill," Grigoryan said while still in office.
She added that the bill, "can lead to disproportionate restrictions on freedom of speech and access to information."
Arshaluis Mgdesyan is a journalist based in Yerevan.