Armenia: Samizdat & the Internet

After a 20-day state of emergency was declared in Armenia when clashes between security services and supporters of the former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, broke out on the streets of the capital following the disputed 19 February presidential election, access to the media has been severely restricted. According to presidential decree, local media outlets can now only publish official news and political propaganda is banned.

4) Publications of mass media concerning state and internal political issues can be implemented solely within the limits of the official information of state bodies.

5) Ban on leaflets and implementation of political propaganda by other means without permission of corresponding state bodies.

While many news outlets complied with the emergency restrictions, others didn't and soon found their activities curtailed. Because there are no national television stations in Armenia operating independently from the state or government-linked businessmen and officials, the pro-opposition media has been limited to publishing newspapers or online magazines and news services since the pro-opposition TV station, A1 Plus, was taken off the air in April 2002.

Opposition views and opinions could also be heard broadcast via Radio Free Europe, but retransmissions have been pulled from the airwaves since the state of emergency was declared.

But, with online pro-opposition media outlets which haven't complied with the restrictions now blocked inside the country, the situation has created an unprecedented opportunity for blogs to fill the gap. As many are hosted on generic servers such as WordPress or Blogspot, access has not yet been restricted. However, YouTube, which was used by A1 Plus to disseminate video of the weekend's riots, does appear to be inaccessible.

Nevertheless, pro-Ter-Petrossian activists outside of the country have seized upon the opportunity to instead use blogs to disseminate information during what is to all intents and purposes a media blackout in the country. Interestingly, one such blogger, Artmika at Unzipped, likens it to the old Soviet practice of “samizdat.”

Samizdat (Russian: самиздат) was the clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries. Copies were made a few at a time, and those who received a copy would be expected to make more copies. This was often done by handwriting or typing.

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.”

While the opposition literature has its own site, others such as pro-Ter-Petrossian activist Nazarian are following in the spirit of the old days by republishing content on their own blogs. Although an initial fear that his blog had also been blocked in Armenia proved premature, Nazarian, like Unzipped, has taken on the role of serving as one of the main sources of information for the opposition in Armenia and its Diaspora.

Now that Armenia has been reduced to the level of China, the brave souls try to keep the liberty going by publishing underground papers and radio reports. Fortunately, we have internet now in addition to the traditional methods of samizdat to disseminate information. Below it the issue number one of samizdat. The sources and authors are kept secret to protect them from the Armenian state.

Indeed, in a recent analysis for ISN Security Watch, one Diasporan academic acknowledged this new trend although also identified one of its 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.

With YouTube apparently blocked by most ISPs in Armenia (the site times out constantly) it remains to be seen if blogs are targeted next. According to The Armenian Observer and a media legal expert for Internews Armenia, blogs technically fall under restrictions in place as a result of the state of emergency.

However, as of writing there appears to be no censorship or restrictions on local bloggers yet, with Ter-Petrossian activists such as Bekaisa constantly updating her LiveJournal site in Armenian, Russian and English on a daily basis. Just in case, however, Unzipped posts tips on how to circumvent internet censorship.


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