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INTERNET
March 1, 2011
Free "Restricted" Zone: Repetition of March Restrictions on the Internet Not Excluded in Armenia
By Karine Asatryan
For JNews.am
Free "Restricted" Zone: Repetition of March Restrictions on the Internet Not Excluded in Armenia

The Internet which seems to be absolutely free and without borders might appear under restraint at any moment, if such a desire is expressed by the structures which have an impact on organizations managing this sector.

“Actually, freedom of communication means is not absolute: authorities instruct, ‘turn it off’, and the providers do it”, says Grigor Saghyan, the vice-chairman of the “Internet Society” NGO and the technical director of the ‘Arminco’ company.

According to him, providers, obtaining relevant license, accept the rules of the game. In the license, he says, “it is clearly reported in what cases one should do what s/he is told by the state, otherwise s/he can lose the right of functioning. Moreover, there are no clear statements, “Since nobody knows how much and further the Internet will develop”, says Grigor Saghyan.

For the first time, in Armenia, mass blocking of freedom of disseminating and getting information through the Internet took place after the March events followed by the RA presidential elections in 2008, when the then incumbent president Robert Kocharyan declared a 20-day state of emergency in the country.

These days, most of the newspapers refused to be published because censorship was implemented, and the news broadcasts were presenting only official information. According to the decree on the state of emergency, it was simply prohibited to present the state and inter-political issues differently from the official stance.

About 20 websites, mostly media ones or those supporting the candidacy of the RA first president Levon Ter-Petrossian, were blocked, although there was not a word on blocking in the relevant decree. Among the blocked sites was the ‘YouTube’ where the opposition was uploading videos on the events of March 1.

And though in 2008 there were only 10,000 users of the broadband, i.e., high-speed Internet, and the cuture of using the internet through mobile phones was not common, also the number of social networks’ users was little, the websites were, nevertheless, blocked.

“Nobody had the right to restrict publication of newspapers and block the websites. In Article 4 of t76 he ‘Law on Mass Media’ it is clearly written that censorship, in Armenia, is prohibited”, says independent expert and journalist Mesrop Harutyunyan.

He reminds that there was nothing said about censorship also in Robert Kocharyan’s decree ‘on declaring state of emergency’.

“Therefore, those bodies which implemented censorship, then have committed a crime and sooner or later they must assume responsibility,” says Harutyunyan.

As in 2008, today, too, there is no law in Armenia regulating the web. Whereas the number of users of the internet has increased by approximately 16 times as compared to 2008.

According to the “Internet Society” NGO Vice-chairman Grigor Saghyan, today the number of broadband Internet users is 160,000. Taking into consideration also lower-speed Internet users, according to various calculations, the users’ number can reach up to 1, 5 million, including also the GPRS subscribers, as well as physical and legal entities.

The quantity of news sites and blogs are increasing parallel to the growth of the internet users. For example, if in August 2010 there were 8,687 individual blogs registered in ArmFeeds.com, then over the last six months this number has increased by 9,336 becoming 18,023. (ArmFeeds.com is the first Armenian system which concentrates the posts of all the Armenian blogs and presents them to the society in a systematized format.)

Also the number of citizens using social networks (most usable one is Facebook) and mini blogs (Twitter) is rapidly growing. This tendency was promoted also by a number of successful civic movements during the last year, social unification of which has stemmed from these platforms.

Parralel to such kind of virtual developments, there are different opinions regarding the possibility of repetition of March restrictions on the Armenian Internet.

“I think, technically, there are no obstacles for that. The question is whether anyone will dare to do it politically or not?” says the editor-in-chief of “Aravot” daily Aram Abrahamyan.

The website of the daily was among the 18 sites blocked during the state of emergency. In fact, as the press, television and radio were under complete censorship (RFE/RL broadcasts were even stopped), the internet was the only alternative.

Aram Abrahamyan mentions that the “Arminco” company then providing services to the site told them that the blocking decision had been reached by the National Security Service. “Aravot” has not appealed the decision.

“It was senseless to waste time on our courts as they are in close affiliation with the NSS or the president,” says the editor-in-chief of “Aravot” daily.

Information Security specialist Samvel Martirosyan thinks that technically it is possible to block sites, as is done in many countries.

"And not only block certain sites, but also disconnect the internet completely," adds Martirosyan, bringing as an example the recent events in the Arab world.

But the internet blockade is not absolute. According to Samvel Martirosyan there is always a weak opportunity to exchange information.

“The reality is that the internet blockade always brings the opposite effect. More people enter the net when they know that it is closed. And the methods to circumvent those restrictions are spread rapidly. The same was in 2008. There was a dramatic increase of the internet users at a time when people learned that there was something prohibited on the internet. This is human psychology: man immediately tries to disclose what is closed,” says Samvel Martirosyan.

Levon Barseghyan, head of the board of Journalists' Club "Asparez", says that direct censorship was taking place on days after March 1.

"A representative of the National Security Service was sitting in the printing-houses, reading the samples and instructing, no. If there was a paragraph difficult to understand, he called his boss, who read, said no, and he told the same: This is the reality," says Levon Barseghyan.

In 2008, when some internet websites were blocked, the public undertook practical methods to ovecome the internet blockade. Different technical means began to be spread among the users that helped visiting closed sites through anonymizers and external proxy servers. Some news sites like www.a1plus.am began to post the articles on the blog. They were more and more disseminated, as under conditions of limited information there was more aspiration to achieve it. These new opportunities were spread very quickly.

As for the regions, Levon Barseghyan, head of the board of Journalists' Club "Asparez", assures that although the blocked sites were more accessible there than in Yerevan, but the internet availability was restricted. And people started to massively install satellite antennas in their homes, to listen to the programs on RFE / RL or watch international news broadcasts on CNN, BBC, Euronews, etc. While in that period also the broadcastings of the latter were often blocked in Armenia.

In the meantime, local and international human rights organizations condemned the press censorship and restrictions in Armenia. However, these phenomena were stopped only after the state of emergency was over.

Newspapers, which had refused to be published under censorship, later wrote that direct censorship has taken place.

Regarding the possibility of similar behavior of the state today, Levon Barseghian says, "As soon as the authorities assess the risk of losing the power as real, they start instantly to increase the volumes of violations, restrict our constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, press, meetings and freedom of moving from place to place. Today too, at any time, we are not immune from such actions."

 

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