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Armenia: Blogging Comes of Age

Arguably the most active country in the South Caucasus when it comes to blogging, the content and relevance of blogs on Armenia was at first nothing really worth writing home about. Most posts by foreigners living in the capital almost entirely focused on how good their lives were while others were simply copy and paste exercises reproducing articles without comment. Perhaps the only time when bloggers started to write original posts was whenever the Armenian Genocide came into the focus of the international media.

Even so, the situation slowly started to change in the run-up to last year’s parliamentary election as the political climate intensified in preparation for the inevitable transfer of power which occurred during this year’s presidential election. Under the constitution, the president is prohibited from holding office for two consecutive terms and as the then incumbent head of state was coming to the end of his second, Armenia would elect a new leader.

Of course, this being the former Soviet Union where vote-rigging and vote-buying are as much part of the election process as physically casting a vote, it was make or break time for the extra-parliamentary radical opposition in the country. And with the broadcast media controlled by the government, it was only natural that the Internet would be seen as a natural medium to disseminate alternative information.

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, most blogs still consisted of regurgitated articles from Armenia’s low circulation, highly polarized, and largely discredited print media. There was little unique material, but there was at least the start of some discussion.

[…] Armenian blogs are extremely politicized these days. However, that politicization is not an artificial phenomenon, but a reflection of our daily reality “offline.” Indeed, it has almost become a pattern for blogs to actively respond to significant political events, which are also headline news in the traditional local media, such as the recent presidential election in neighboring Georgia, the publication of Levon Ter-Petrossian’s electoral platform, and the following press conference.

The campaign team and supporters of the first and former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, were quick to harness the power of the Internet — especially blogs — as the government-controlled media either ignored their candidate or engaged in black propaganda. Naturally, pro-government bloggers responded, and supporters of both Ter-Petrossian and then prime minister, Serge Sargsyan, soon opened up new blogs on free weblog hosting services, but particularly on LiveJournal.

Writing for Global Voices Online, Artur Papyan described the situation perfectly.

For the past few weeks, a number of anonymous blogs have been launched which are directed towards throwing mud at various presidential candidates. Bloggers that had traditionally taken a more moderate approach, also became “infected” with unrestrained politics. As a result, those taking their first steps in the Armenian blogosphere felt as if they had instead materialized in a psychiatric hospital.

Indeed, much of what was being posted soon became either skillfully crafted propaganda or little more than mutually hostile attacks by both sides on anyone that dared to disagree with them. Local blogger and political analyst Samvel Martirosyan noted the phenomenon on E-Channel.

A number of other similar “military” blogs could be mentioned. They have several common features. These blogs have been launched in the course of the past month. Their contents have unequivocally negative character: here you will not find any positive information in favor of any candidate. Sometimes the authors write about other issues as well, so that the purposes of the blogs do not become very obvious. However, those postings are brief, have no purposes, mainly referring to other bloggers’ postings.

Basically, political blogging intensified. Some lone voices such as Christina at Mi Or [AM] lamented the situation which was reflected in nearly every sphere of life in the country. However, online voices such as hers were in the minority.

I don’t know, really don’t know… hatred and evil are clashing like waves in this little piece of land, and their rage is acquiring the force of a tempest. Hatred closes you eyes, puts your target in front of you and all your creative talents are wasted on efforts to destroy it. Spare those efforts…

In a sense, the local blogosphere precisely mirrored the actual election campaign itself as well as an increasingly polarized media which, rather than remain objective, soon became extensions of the campaign teams of both Ter-Petrossian and Sargsyan. But, following the latter’s predictable election as president, all of that was about to change despite the Council of Europe declaring the vote as “largely in line with international standards.”

YouTube became full of videos depicting electoral irregularities and illegalities such as ballot box stuffing and actual violence in polling stations. Bloggers either embedded them in their entries or posted their own photographs from the daily opposition rallies which soon defined the immediate aftermath of Sargsyan’s controversial and disputed election. The Armenian Blogosphere had never seen so much activity.

The moment when blogging really came of age, however, was on 2 March 2008 – less than two weeks after the election and a day after the dispersal of an opposition camp set up in a central Yerevan Square led to clashes between radical opposition supporters and the authorities which left at least ten people dead and hundreds injured. A 20-day state of emergency had been declared in the capital and all media outlets were restricted to only reporting news based on official government information.

Only blogs remained to disseminate uncensored news, and while some news sites and YouTube were blocked, no action was taken against bloggers.

Hetq Online, a pro-opposition online weekly, was one of those affected by the state of emergency restrictions and last week published an article recognizing the importance of blogs during this period. Although one media lawyer had determined that blogs could be legally interpreted as media outlets, neither pro-opposition nor pro-government bloggers adhered to the new government emergency regulations.

As there was no unofficial information coming out of Armenia, bloggers both at home and abroad moved in to fill the gap.

[…] The blogosphere, which already had heated up before this, continued the political debate with even more energy. […]

Tigran Kocharyan (aka Pigh) states that, “What resulted was that my ideas, let’s say, essentially dovetailed with those of the regime. I came out and declared that I wouldn’t abide with the restrictions and I continued to publish the blog, like before.”

The opposition was just as active. For example “bekaisa” not only circulated the announcements from Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s headquarters or interviews given by Ter-Petrosyan and his supporters, but also followed what the foreign press had to say about all of this, publishing and often translating these articles as well.

And even if YouTube had been blocked in Armenia, ways to circumvent the restriction such as using anonymous proxy servers became the norm for those fortunate enough to have access to fast Internet connections. A1 Plus, a pro-opposition TV station deprived of its broadcasting frequency in April 2002 used the online video sharing service to disseminate clips while Ter-Petrossian activists continued to produce and upload materials in his support.

The A1 Plus channel soon became one of the most popular on YouTube.

Writing again for E-Channel, Samuel Martirosyan recognized how adept the opposition were at utilizing the Internet to get their message across. In part, forgetting the media vacuum that also exists in Armenia, this was because many of their most active supporters were young, progressive, educated and with experience of living abroad or working for international organizations. Even so, with Internet penetration in Armenia around 6 percent, the reach of such new mediums for political communication was limited.

[…] net videos are being actively used. Particularly, Levon Ter-Petrossian’s team has given up television airtime, posting video materials in the web site of the candidate, as well as in YouTube.

[…]

Apparently, such virtual means do not yet greatly affect the election results in Armenia. However, in spite of the fact that Internet users do not form a big percentage in Armenia, they are one of the most active groups of voters. This circumstance can have an incomparably bigger influence than it seems at a first glance.

Regardless, on the government side, rumors had long been circulated by opposition supporters that the National Security Service (NSS), the successor to the notorious Soviet-era KGB, were even employing people to blog in order to offset what was undoubtedly “control” of the Internet by the radical opposition. Some even wondered if pro-government bloggers were real people.

[…] When recently Observer posted the list of ten propaganda blogs, there was a big fuss about it. Several bloggers that were particularly being accused tried to prove they were real people, and not disguised employees of NSS. Bloggers even purposefully met with Countrev in order to make sure he existed.

However, the fact remains a fact: for the last month, numerous blogs have opened, the main function of them being apparent campaigning. Sure, the motives are not clear since we don’t know who has been backing them up. […]

One ethnic Armenian political analyst based in the United States recognized the importance of blogs although also identified one of their main shortcomings. “With a media blackout in place [..t]he only source of independent (although biased) news remains the various blogs maintained by individuals in Armenia and a handful of international news agencies that have limited access to properly assess the situation in the country,” wrote Asbed Kotchikian for ISN Security Watch.

Not only had blogging and online file sharing sites come of age in Armenia, but they had also become the new Samizdat.

Samizdat (Russian: самиздат) was the clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries. […]

This grassroots practice to evade officially imposed censorship was fraught with danger as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials.

Vladimir Bukovsky defined it as follows: “I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and [may] get imprisoned for it.”

Writing on Profy, a non-Armenian blogger also noted their significance from afar.

The Armenian government has apparently underestimated the power of bloggers, however. Armenian bloggers, both inside and outside the Armenian borders, have continued to post and discuss the news, linking those who have been cut off from any non-government news source to alternate sources of information. Both hosted and independent blogs are still able to post articles, and as of yet, no hosted blog services have been blocked.

While many of us take the ability to blog for granted, for many it has become the only way to get more than one version of important news events. Citizen journalism may be a luxury here in the U.S., but for many parts of the world, it’s a necessity.

Interestingly, restrictions did materialize on those blogs written by Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) in Armenia. Kyle’s Journey in Armenia, for example, wrote about how travel by PCVs in the country away from their sites, and especially to the capital, Yerevan, had been prohibited. The Peace Corps reportedly demanded he remove the post although he instead locked it away under password protection instead.

With the country essentially on lock-down, Peace Corps has put us on high alert and is requiring us to stay at our sites until further notice. Outside of Yerevan (and Noyemberyan is no exception), things are functioning as normal, and we have not had any problems with civil unrest here or in our region at all. Schools and businesses are open, and we are going forward with life, albeit with a black cloud looming over the country. […]

[…] We will see in the next couple weeks, but until then life will remain tense and uncomfortable. It can only get a lot better, or a lot worse, from here. Hopefully this State of Emergency will do the former and at least keep people off the streets. It has, of course, disrupted some things in my life (for instance, my friend was supposed to come teach a class here this week, and my skiing trip was canceled) but I am safe and not worried about the situation getting worse here in Noyemberyan.

Concerns from international organizations and diplomatic missions were probably justified. Tensions between the two main rival camps became even more heated. Both continually accused the other of “treason” while more neutral, objective or just plain indifferent bloggers were subject to intimidation and harassment, especially from radical opposition supporters. Although some of us had already been accused of being NSS agents, there were also threats of physical violence or later retribution from both sides.

As a result, some blogs, and most notably the pro-opposition Unzipped as well as my own The Caucasus Knot started to moderate comments. Some media sites such as Armenia Now and Hetq Online had set up their own blogs or introduced commenting on otherwise official communiqués in order to circumvent the state of emergency restrictions, but caution with allowing such vitriolic and antagonistic comments became an issue there as well.

Even after the state of emergency ended, the situation remained tense, with Hetq Online having to close off its comments section until it was brought back by popular demand. During the period of emergency rule itself, A1 Plus blogger Shushan Harutyunyan says she spent “several hours” each day reading the comments and “editing out the profanity.”

But for all the problems associated with blogging in Armenia during the political upheavals associated with elections in the South Caucasus, certain precedents were set. Not only were blogs the only source of information unrestricted or censored by the government inside the country for nearly three weeks, but the president-elect was even forced to go online to solicit questions from concerned citizens and members of the large and influential Diaspora.

True, it wasn’t really a blog and more just a temporary web site hosted on a blogging platform, but the intent to counter the propaganda victory the opposition had already scored was genuine. Ironically, the move secured the continuation of blogs as Samuel Martirosian explains.

In this state of emergency, various network groups took up the role of the media. Information was being disseminated through E-mail and there has been so much of it that it was already being turned into spam.

Public networks were also being used – for example, Facebook where there were about 150 members from Armenia only in the group Open Information in the Days of Information Blockade.

Bloggers were extremely influential at that period – their activeness had increased for a few times. It was the bloggers that started presenting the events of March 1 online, turning into the only information source at that moment. LiveJournal bloggers were the most active ones. Moreover, a real informational war started here between the two camps. The quantity of blog visitors drastically increased. Apart from that, dozens of new blogs were opened only for these three weeks.

[…]

That is why, there was a danger that NSS would take up measures to block Livejournal and other blogs. Serzh Sargsyan personally saved the situation by deciding to open his blog in Livejournal and to answer to questions, distracting the attention of security officers. […]

Now that post-election tensions have eased with the presidential election more distant in the minds of most Armenians, that situation is reflected online too. The rhetoric of hate and division has started to slowly subside, giving way to more reasoned and restrained discussion and debate, while the quality of Armenian blogs has noticeably improved. Regardless of the political rights and wrongs of the opposition or the government, supporters of the former at home and abroad continue to prove themselves as the most active and committed.

One blogger from Armenia now living and working in the United Kingdom had already set a precedent for blogs covering issues that were not reported elsewhere with his Unzipped: Gay Armenia site. The blogger applied the same level of professionalism, albeit in support of the former president, on his other blog, Unzipped. And even if most blogs reverted back to cross-posting materials available elsewhere, the Armenaker Kamilion set another precedent by painstakingly translating and posting English versions of key opposition texts.

Certainly, even if the readership of Armenian blogs still remains quite low with readership of most only tripling during the state of emergency period, their importance to the political process is now unprecedented and will definitely not be underestimated in the future. Hetq Online provides the best example of this and coincidently also gives this post the perfect quote to end on.

A few days ago I went to the trial of someone arrested on March 1st. There were many people in the hallway waiting for the start of the court session. A man of about fifty sitting next to me asked what news outlet was I covering the story for. I told him it was for the Internet, thinking to myself that it wasn’t likely that he’d be interested or that he’d remember the address of the website.

-Is it in one of the blogs? – He asked, which greatly startled me.

-No, not in the blogs. But do you read the blogs? – I asked.

-Sure I do. You can’t really believe what the papers write, can you now?

It will be interesting to see whether the precedent set in Armenia is followed during parliamentary and presidential elections still to be held this year in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

28 comments

  • […] of next month’s Global Voices Online Summit in Budapest, Hungary, I’ve just compiled a backgrounder on the role blogs played during the recent presidential election and especially in its immediate […]

  • […] of next month’s Global Voices Online Summit in Budapest, Hungary, I’ve just compiled a backgrounder on the role blogs played during the recent presidential election and especially in its immediate […]

  • Ani

    Onnik, very good and informative wrap-up of the recent past–let’s hope that blogging continues and matures in Armenia and the Diaspora and that Internet access improves and increases.

    I do think the part about Serzh Sargsyan’s blog needs an emendation, though, since in the Hetq article you cited–“This blog was created and managed by Ruben Muradyan (aka blogger “Uzogh”)” –as well as my recent discussions with Uzogh on the Armenian Observer site (“Divided Blogosphere” entry) it has become clear that the blog was in fact ghost-written and who actually answered the questions that were actually answered is open to speculation.

  • Ani, do we know that it was ghost-written or is this just speculation? Certainly, the answers to those questions asked on the TV show were from Sargsyan.

    Anyway, otherwise as I say in the post, I don’t really consider it to be a “blog.” Instead, it was just hosted on a blogging platform and the text entered by others.

    “Created and managed” doesn’t mean “written” to me, although because the site was used only to collect questions for a television interview, I can’t consider it Sargsyan’s personal blog or any blog at all.

    It will also likely not be continued. Anyway, talking of blogs and political figures, it would have been interesting for Ter-Petrossian to blog from under effective house-arrest.

    Of course, with the precedent set in other developed countries, it would have been encouraging to see some candidates for parliament and the presidency blog from time to time and answer comments.

    Next elections, perhaps.

  • Ani

    Onnik, even if Sargsyan gave ideas and direction to someone else as to what to say but didn’t write it himself, it was ghostwritten. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_writing
    The image of Sargsyan hunched over his computer, typing away, was a strange one but was the image conveyed–I guess semantic analysis comparing his oral vs. written answers could clear it up.

    Ter-Petrossian missed a great opportunity to blog (perhaps they cut his Internet connection??), although he did write his own Washington Post article, whereas Sargsyan/Baghdasarian clearly had someone write theirs for them–you agree on that, don’t you?

  • Ani, I live in the hope that at least Sargsyan’s answers were from him even if he didn’t type them in himself. Maybe that’s naive, but regardless, I think the whole endeavor was incorrectly portrayed as his blog when it clearly wasn’t one.

    And yes, I don’t doubt that Ter-Petrossian wrote his own Washington Post article as he did everything else. I don’t know about the Sargsyan/Baghdasarian follow-up. Certainly, I would hope they penned it jointly, but if they didn’t…

    Well, anyway. Slightly going off the point of the post, but I agree that Sargsyan’s “blog” wasn’t really one. Nice idea, but the implementation was not one that people were immediately expecting.

    I really hope that some progressive-minded politicians in Armenia think about blogging and being “in touch” with their potential electorate. Until then, hats off to Ter-Petrossian’s supporters and campaign team for really utilizing the possibilities offered by the Internet and blogs in particular.

    They set a precedent and one that I hope will continue. It is now for other political forces to show themselves to have entered the 21st Century by following suit. No sign of that so far, however, although I think some of Heritage’s people should consider it.

    Interestingly, Raffi Hovannisian’s son Garin is an active blogger so with people like him and Zara Postanjian around, it would add a new welcome dimension to things. Some NGOs should also consider it, not just to get their message across, but also to set a precedent for transparency in how projects are implemented in the CIS.

  • Zaven

    I doubt Levon would be blogging. Runs counter to his style. Aloof, couldn’t-be-bothered, without much regard for PR (just recall his presidency).

    Then again, tactics changed during the 10 day Opera circus, though he has for sure cut a deal to save himself (again).

  • […] Media in Armenia and Onnik Krikorian has written an in depth analysis of this phenomenon at Global Voices. Explore posts in the same categories: […]

  • […] my recent post for Global Voices Online on Armenian blogs in the period immediately before, during and after the 19 February presidential […]

  • In the post above I mention how the comments section of various blogs and news outlets became saturated with hostile remarks from both sides to the extent that one online publication closed it’s section down before eventually opening it up again later.

    Interestingly, it would appear that some of those from the pro-government side were coordinated by a nationalist forum. Given the personal nature of some attacks from the other side, it is possible that something similar might have been staged as well.

    However, there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case so far. From the other side, however, it was definitely coordinated.

    There is an organized effort today to undermine and isolate the Armenian Republic upon the international stage. This concerted anti-Armenian effort is being run by Washington DC and the tools they are using are entities such as Armenianow, Radio Liberty, A1 Plus, Hetq, various blogs and individuals involved within the Armenian Assembly. These organizations and websites have become magnets for delusional asswipes amongst our people as of late. Off-set their effort, post remarks/comments in support of the ruling administration in Yerevan. However, be aware that anti-Levon comments are being periodically deleted by site administrators in order to artificially create an impression that a majority of the Armenian “public” is against the Armenian authorities. Therefore, be ready to repost your comments when required. We need to get involved, we need to contact our embassies, we need to contact Armenia’s presidential office and various national organizations and express our opposition to what is going on.

    The full thread is here.

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