Propaganda in Armenia Before April 2018
Since independence in 1991, Armenia’s successive semi-autocratic regimes consistently disseminated certain values and ideas utilizing effective opinion-making mechanisms and experienced propagandists. Following the Velvet Revolution earlier this year, the system of state governance and the media landscape in Armenia is undergoing a transitional period. Currently, the political space has become an arena for a power struggle, where different political parties and groups have their own media resources (including TV channels). Moreover, Armenian society is faced with the challenge of reassessing its old values and creating a new value system and group identity, leaving the space open for manipulation and propaganda.
The value system, propagated by the former ruling elites, was based on so-called traditional values, where the traditional family was considered the core structure of society. The image of an Armenian, promoted by the Republican Party of Armenia with its proclaimed conservative approach, had a number of so-called core “national” characteristics. First of all, a real Armenian was portrayed as a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Secondly, service in the army had become an important characteristic for men. This tendency became especially acute after the April 2016 war in Artsakh. As a result, during recent years, a number of politicians have been shamed for not serving in the army, even if they had legal and/or justified reasons to defer from compulsory military service. The state fostered traditional notion for women saw their primary role as a wife and mother. In recent years, the expression “mother of a future soldier” also became part of the public discourse on the topic.
The apex of the propaganda regarding militaristic values was the introduction of the Nation-Army Concept in October 2016. This concept was disseminated by a number of state-affiliated media resources, including Public TV, and official Facebook pages of state institutions, including the Yerevan Municipality’s Facebook page. The concept, according to former Minister of Defence Vigen Sargsyan was created to strengthen the ties between society and the army. According to Sargsyan, “All governmental bodies, civilians and everybody else must correctly carry out their role in the defense of the country.” This triggered wide public debate on the mandatory character of military service and not only. As a result, the public shaming of government officials for not serving in the army became the norm over the last two years. An image of “superior citizens” was created within public opinion for those who served in the army. Although respect towards the military in general and veterans of the Karabakh War (also known as Freedom Fighters), in particular, is not a new tendency in Armenia, the Nation-Army Concept was the first attempt of systematic propaganda of military service as a characteristic of a “superior” citizen. As a part of this new approach, former military leaders and soldiers were portrayed as better candidates for leading political positions. The propaganda of this conservative militaristic male-centered value system was discriminatory towards minorities, people with disabilities, women, and, in general, those who did not agree to accept these clearly demarcated and defined roles.
Very often the so-called traditional value system of the Republican Party and its allies was not only discriminative, but often also aggressive and violent. For instance, aggression against the LGBT community has been a common issue in Armenia. In a number of cases, LGBT community members or alleged members of the community were subjected to violence, whereas the criminal acts were not subjected to proper legal investigation by authorities, and the discrimination and violence against the LGBT community was justified by members of parliament. In 2012, a popular bar was firebombed in Yerevan in a hate crime against the country’s gay community. Back then, Member of Parliament for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutuyn (a close ally of the RPA) Artsvik Minasyan not only publicly defended the suspects but also bailed them out. Minasyan stated that their actions were normal and in accordance with Armenian societal values.
The propaganda of traditional family values has also created the grounds for neglecting the existence of domestic violence in Armenia among the public and the subsequent refusal to provide protection to the victims of domestic violence by authorities. Between 2010-2017, at least 50 women were killed by their partners or former partners. In October 2017, when the Armenian government was redeveloping its draft law on preventing domestic violence, the bill was artificially turned from a preventive and protective tool into a mechanism for “family reconciliation” between abusers and survivors. In mid-November 2017, the government revised the law and included “strengthening of traditional values in the family” as a key principle. A number of public figures, including parliament members made public statements, claiming that the law was against traditional Armenian values.
The statements were broadcast by a number of media outlets associated with the former government, including Ararat TV, which was a Republican TV channel until very recently, when it allegedly was bought by former president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan. The government associated TV and online media outlets have not only massively ignored the domestic violence issue in their news coverage, but have also participated in the propaganda of specific gender roles and gender-based violence via locally produced soap operas. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Society Without Violence NGO, in a number of cases the main reason of domestic violence crimes is stereotypical gender roles and prejudices in Armenian society.
Today, five months after the change of government, propaganda that threatens Human Rights has not only decreased but on the contrary is steadily increasing. In the beginning of August, a group of LGBT activists was attacked in Shurnukh, a small village in southern Armenia. The media reaction and a rally of a homophobic group in Shurnukh organized a few weeks after the incident showed that the case has become a tool, this time by non-state actors for political propaganda against the new government. Prior to this, a number of public figures, including Hayk Demoyan, former director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, made public statements, implying that some officials among the new government are from the LGBT community. The systematic spread of homophobic assaults by a number of media outlets, that are publicly perceived to be associated with the former ruling party, is leaving an impression that homophobic propaganda is being implemented with a goal to discredit Pashinyan’s government via public mobilization around traditional values and show that the revolutionary forces are destroying Armenian identity.
The subject came up again during the special session of parliament on October 24, when Pashinyan was asked to stop the expected LGBT forum in Armenia as it threatens traditional Armenian family values. Pashinyan’s response was that the less this subject is discussed the better, because for him and his government, it is problematic. “Some will say we are defending them, others will say we are violating human rights, others will say we are destabilizing the basis of the traditional family, etc…. I’m thinking our government will find ways to avoid this issue but 10, 20 or 30 years later no doubt there will be a government that will come face to face with the problem. And on that day, that government needs to decide, does it bring out the tanks and drive over everyone, shoot them or will it recognize the existence of these people in the Republic of Armenia?” His response has led to a wide public debate. On one hand it was described as being too neutral, on the other he was accused of being homophobic. His response has also fostered one more wave of homophobic statements.
The possibility of the outbreak of war has been another widespread topic of discussion in recent months. Articles on a possible large-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and “fears” of a civil war were published in order to manipulate public opinion by creating an atmosphere of fear and arouse the self-preservation instinct of the Armenian public. While opinion manipulation via securitization of politics is not an innovation in Armenia, the civil war propaganda is rather new. A number of public figures, publicly perceived to be associated with the former government, have claimed, that if Pashinyan’s government does not take the road of compromises, a large-scale civil war or hybrid war will start in Armenia. The topic was largely discussed by fake accounts on Facebook and the example of Ukraine was often cited. Other terminology used for creating the atmosphere of panic are such expressions as “unprecedented crisis,” “danger,” “loss of statehood,” and “chaos.”
The propaganda of traditional values is also done via religious propaganda. This propaganda is not only directed towards certain religious minorities, but also those, who openly consider themselves atheists. For instance, the new Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan has been subjected to systematic criticism by such media outlets for his religious views. The same media outlets (Iravunk, Hraparak, BlogNews, 168.am, Lurer.com, YerevanToday) have published articles claiming that the members of the new government are followers of the Word of Life church. A vivid example of an organized wave of propaganda against a politician because of his religious views was the case of Gevorg Achemyan, former Chief of Administrative Service of the Prime Minister, who was criticized by a number of media outlets for being a follower of the Word of Life church.
The most interesting tendency in Armenia today is the systematic propaganda of different topics by the same media outlets and “public opinion-makers” on Facebook. The significant change brought about by the Velvet Revolution is that state-affiliated media platforms (Public TV and Radio) have stopped the systematic propaganda of discriminative values. The militaristic propaganda, however, is continuing as a number of media programs on the army continue to be aired by Public TV. Having said that, content on the public broadcasting station over the last few months has significantly changed in terms of its coverage of democracy and human rights related subjects. This does not mean, though, that anti-human-rights propaganda has stopped in Armenia, on the contrary, it has been more systematic than before and is mostly led by media outlets that are publicly perceived to be associated with the Republican Party, including Ararat TV.
The main institutional change in Armenia during the last few months in the field of propaganda targeting human rights values has not been led by the government. Prior to spring 2018, the Armenian government had a specific institution which was spreading propaganda. The Public Relations and Information Center (PRIC) State Non-Commercial Organization was involved in systematic propaganda of certain values. After May 2018, the leadership and leading experts of PRIC left their positions, but along with their efforts to harm the Velvet Revolution they are continuing to spread anti-human rights propaganda on Facebook. Photos and videos published from the rally show that the former staff of the Public Relations and Information Center was among the organizers and participants of a car rally to express support to the villagers in Shurnukh. After the change of leadership at PRIC in May 2018, it has not been initiating anti-human rights propaganda waves. Despite this, in order to prevent any future involvement of this organization in similar activities, its functions must be made transparent for the public. A budget-funded institution with 150 employees that is supposed to provide information to the public in a democratic system must be fully transparent.
The last six months have illustrated that discriminatory propaganda will not stop in Armenia, it will continue and can intensify in certain political contexts. The government is not funding and supporting anti-human rights propaganda after the Velvet Revolution, but a number of media resources and public figures are continuing to spread propaganda against minorities in Armenia. It is also clear that the propaganda of traditional values will be one of the main themes in the pre-electoral discourse during the campaign in the lead up to snap parliamentary elections by traditionalist parties. In order to stop the misuse of human rights discourse as a public opinion manipulation tool there is a strong need in Armenia to raise public awareness on human rights and discrimination related topics.
What is Propaganda?
The Institute for Propaganda Analysis defines propaganda as the “expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals and groups with reference to predetermined ends.” According to the most accepted definition of propaganda, it is a systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs and actions to achieve specific goals. Effective propaganda usually manipulates basic human emotions, i.e. fears, self-preservation instinct, sexual behavior, family values, etc. Effective propaganda is creating (or distorting an already existing) group identity. Jason Stanley in his book “How Propaganda Works” claims that some group identities lead to the formation of beliefs that are difficult to rationally abandon, since abandoning them would lead them to challenge our self-worth. When our own identity is connected with the identity of a particular group, we may become irrational. As a result, we become especially susceptible to propaganda. Very often propaganda is not a mere lie, but rather distorted representation of the objective reality.
To achieve her/his goal the manipulator/propagandist can use different tools – words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, designs on postage stamps and other symbols. The most influential tool for spreading propaganda, with no doubt, are words and thus the media. As a result, we are constantly faced with media manipulation waves, systematic spread of disinformation and misinformation. In current era of digitalization, media manipulations are especially dangerous, because online and social media have made the access to wider layers of population easier for the manipulators/propagandists. Therefore, not only in Armenia, but within most of the countries with relative media freedom the massive waves of opinion manipulations are posing danger for democracy and Human Rights. In case of complete autocratic systems ruling government has the monopoly of propaganda. Usually the autocratic systems have a specific state institution, which can be described as a ministry of propaganda. Meanwhile, in the case of democratic or semi-democratic systems the source of propaganda can be very often hidden, sometimes even external. Moreover, in our digital reality it is highly complicated to follow the source of propaganda. The websites, involved in political and anti-human rights propaganda, can be located in China, but publish materials targeting a small town in Canada. In case of Armenia, in the period of May 1 - May 9, 2018, between two separate hearings of the Parliament to elect a new Prime-Minister, a few dozen of websites suddenly appeared and started to spread disinformation and propaganda against the revolutionary forces. The websites were mostly operating from Russia.
To fight legally against propaganda that takes a form of a hate speech and incitement to hatred in Armenia is very difficult due to the shortcomings of legal regulations in the field. Furthermore, very often the propaganda is very subtle and the “soft” propaganda is harder to address. Thus, let’s say there are no legal regulations that would prevent the production of Armenian movies, soap operas and magazines, that present, women as weak, vulnerable and dependent or normalize domestic violence and male abuse towards women.