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

  • Excellent article Onnik!

  • grigor sargsyan

    Onnik,

    I wounder why these guys want to deport you. Maybe Richard Giragosian for his apparent support of LTP, but why you? By the way, do you know who are behind that forum?

    Nice article! By the way, it feels like you pointed out at least one positive thing that LTP contributed to. The blogs are more active now. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much more that he contributed to.

  • Grigor, probably because my blog has covered subject matter that even the alternative (independent) press didn’t unless they were funded to by international donors. Some of this work was published by Hetq Online, but a lot more went out on my blog and I had always been more active on the subject of democracy, poverty, minority rights than any other online outlet anyway. I guess this forum never forgave me for that.

    At the same time, as was the case in 2003, apart from the Photolure photo agency, I was the most active in photographing the election period to the extent that the Internet has largely been mainly full of my images. Usually that meant Ter-Petrossian so they probably figured I was a supporter rather than someone who photographed everything.

    Or it could have been something more simpler and obvious in the Armenian reality — the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality. I’ve stated quite clearly that I consider neither Ter-Petrossian nor Sargsyan had enough vots to win in a first round despite what they both claim which means that I irked both sides. Nearly everyone else took sides.

    As for who runs that forum I have no idea, but I think we can assume it’s in the Diaspora and probably mainly U.S.-based. Incidentally, I’m beginning to suspect that some of the personal attacks against myself and others by the radical opposition side might have been coordinated too, but obviously can’t say for sure.

  • Azadakan

    This is a very informative and interesting article. I have forwarded and recommended it to many friends.

    What is maybe missing is an account on the language mix of the blogs on Armenia. My impression is that the blogging that “came of age” was mainly in English, and to some extent in Russian. The blogs in Armenian were and remained marginal. I also felt that there was a certain correlation between the language and political stance; pro-radical opposition blogs were mostly in English and pro-establishment blogs in Russian.
    Moreover, and strangely, the March events did not favor the emergence of blogs in French although the people, technical expertise, and potential audience exist. There was even a sharp decline – almost to the point of full silence – for almost 6 weeks following March 1 in all Internet-based political activity.

    I hope that blogs on Armenia will diversify further in the future; not only language-wise but also theme-wise. As you show in your article, it is only political blogs that have developed in the past year. I may not be sufficiently informed but I haven’t noticed much development in blogging activities focused on sports, arts, the economy, etc. The political blogs treat of course other subjects from time to time but always from a political perspective which is rather limited/narrow.

  • Azadakan,

    Thanks or the comment and I agree that there was a mix language-wise. However, that was tackled in the quotes above and in particular the extreme polarization and hostility shown in posts in Armenian and Russian. In a sense, it was all a propaganda mud-fight with no rules.

    They do, however, still constitute a coming of age because as Artur, Kornelij and E-Channel explain, the number of new blogs appearing was huge. It’s also worth pointing out that the A1 Plus blog was in Armenian so I think in general, we can say the importance of blogs was there.

    Their quality and worth in terms of opinions expressed, on the other hand, is subjective. However, it did reflect the climate at the time. As for your other point about subject matter, agreed. However, bear in mind that few people in Armenia knew what a blog was until recently, but now they do.

    Therefore, I would expect others to view them as a medium for expression, but on many other issues rather than politics. On that, it could be Sirusho and Eurovision that set the precedent for that, but let’s see.

    Anyway, just to say that as blogs were the only source of information from Armenia that wasn’t censored was quite something. They appeared on the map, let’s put it like that, and functioned when the media as a whole didn’t.

    Regarding the blogosphere as a whole, I’d suggest clicking through to the E-Channel articles for more detailed information.

  • Onnik wrote: “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”

    Hi Onnik, Since your post starts off with what can only be a direct reference to the blogs on my site (Cilicia.com), I would like to point out yet again that these blogs were, in fact, the equivalent of “writing home” by these foreigners (Diasporans) who were sharing their lives and experiences, thoughts joys and frustrations with Diasporans back home. They never have pretended to be anything else – and while politics politics politics may be interesting to some, to others, they may be deathly boring and the experiences of moving to Armenia are fascinating. It’s all a matter of opinion. If you consider going out to eat at places like Marco Polo and Artbridge “the good life”, then I guess it was the good life. I am not sure if living in small apartments, with issues with water flows, heating, smokers, cops, living with few exceptions without a car, etc, etc is what most in the west would consider “the good life”, or why it would be referenced in a somewhat negative light, but anyway… just wanted to clarify what the blogs were, what they weren’t and what they never intended to be.

    Don’t mean to or intend to start any back and forth – just wanted to expand on the background of the blogs in question, because the post seemed a bit judgmental when referring to them.

  • Hi Raffi,

    While we have often discussed the issue of Cilicia.com’s posts in the past, I wasn’t actually referring to it in the opening paragraph although I understand why you thought I was. Well, let me expand a little on that. I mean, I would guess that the statement would include Cilicia.com’s posts, although later that situation changed, but not only. There were other blogs or forum posts — by temporary visitors, expats etc — out there which fell into that trap.

    So, in a sense, I guess I’m trying to say that in part I was, but not totally or specifically. Regardless, that’s not to say there is no place for them, but rather that’s all we got at the time. Of course, it is up to bloggers to write what they want, but I think it unfortunate that nothing else was discussed or written about. As there was little alternative information on the Internet at the same time, it was a lost opportunity.

    Anyway, that later changed and Cilicia.com came more varied so even if you take it as criticism, that hasn’t been the case for some time. Moreover, in April 2004 you guys probably set a precedent by live blogging a major political event from the capital. To my recollection, that was the first time anything like that had been done.

    Anyway, like I said, that situation has changed, but the fact is that there was very little other stuff of note on the Internet, especially in the realms of freedom of expression about the political and social situation in the country. Since 2007, however, that has drastically changed.

    Ironically, the situation might now even have introduced new problems to blogging. Firstly, the political blogs have been too polarized and many at times intimidating and offensive which probably isn’t going to entice others to start blogging for fear of attack (as I was a few years ago for dealing with issues such as democracy and poverty when nobody else was).

    On the other hand, the blogosphere is hardly balanced and as Azadakan says, what about other subject matters. In a sense, now Cilicia.com offers that balance although it’s been regrettably inactive of late, while others don’t. Probably because of all the hostility and politics, it’s time we all tried to be a little more varied in what we cover and to what extent.

    Meanwhile, just to say that I met up with Observer (Artur) on Friday and he played me Myrthe’s interview from a blogging radio program for Internews. He said he wanted to interview you as the “father” of blogging from Armenia. I agreed. Even if we may have had our disagreements at the beginning, I do read Cilicia.com more now and also recognize that it was probably the first blog from Armenia.

    Indeed, it was a blog before many people out there actually knew what one was. That was pretty good foresight and something to be acknowledged. So, to conclude, it is all subjective but I would prefer more variety, plurality and diversity in the blogosphere. At the beginning that wasn’t there and I personally wish it had been.

    Ironically, now with one side of political bloggers making out that everything is bad in Armenia, perhaps I can see that such an approach to other aspects of life is necessary. Anyway, long and the short of it is that I hope that blogs can represent the entire reality and not just part of it. Interestingly, I felt as though Cilicia.com had started to do just that before the election and I was sorry to see that it later wasn’t so active.

    However, given the extent of attacks on anyone who expressed their opinion during that period I can understand why and to be honest, think it was the right move. While I do believe the radical opposition did an amazing job of initiating an online campaign, the way they also used the Internet to attack and attempt to discredit others was very under-handed and quite regrettable.

    So, apologies if you took offense to the opening paragraph. I guess we agree and disagree if that makes sense, but even if it doesn’t, it wasn’t meant to be a vindictive or hostile attack. I do, however, it was a valid point. Regardless, I hope Cilicia.com starts to become more active soon and we’ll certainly monitor and link to it.

  • Hi Onnik, I appreciate the explanation. Sure, it would have been interesting to have other blogs at the time as well, and even on Cilicia I was always looking for more bloggers and perspectives – as a search of older posts will show. I wanted Diasporans from the mid-east, Russia, older, married, etc… but as you probably know, it’s not always easy to find such volunteers, and the public and private attacks on the bloggers played a role in shutting some of them up permanently. They were opening up their lives to the world, offering a glimpse, and while many appreciated it, some decided to judge them on every aspect of their lives – whether they actually knew it for a fact or not… and throw in things they may know or suspect from the offline world as well. All usually behind a veil of anonymity, while we had nowhere to hide.

    I’ve tried many things to deal with this, from turning comments on and off, blocking, turning moderation on and off… and just wondering if it is worth it. You can easily go back into the archives and see how vastly different the nature of the posts have become – as bloggers now limit to a great extent their sharing of their personal and work lives as a result of these actions, and I think that this change, which I certainly made myself, is a lost opportunity forever.

    And, as you can see, I’m still just a bit sensitive on the topic!

    Anyway, take care…

  • […] Global Voices posts on blogging in Armenia during and after the 2008 presidential election are here and […]

  • […] available online so for a better idea of what I’ll be presenting see posts on Global Voices here and here as well as in my recent article for […]

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