Daniel Ioannisyan, Program Coordinator of the Union of Informed Citizens NGO, took part in the remote discussion on freedom of speech and media at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting organized by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE / ODIHR).
Below we present Daniel Ioannisyan’s speeches on the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of information.
Freedom of expression
In a number of OSCE member states, the level of freedom of expression has declined significantly as a result of restrictions caused by COVID-19. Moreover, restrictions are stronger in countries where traditionally democratic values are less respected, like Russia, Hungary or Azerbaijan.
On March 16, a state of emergency was declared in Armenia due to the coronavirus and freedom of expression was restricted.
It was widely criticized by Armenian NGOs, the parliamentary opposition and the international community. And in this regard, I would like to express special gratitude to Mr. Harlem Désir.
Against the background of this criticism, just a few days later the restriction on freedom of speech was eased, and on April 13 it was removed altogether.
I would like to emphasize that the spread of panic cannot be prevented by restricting freedom of speech (it will lead to the opposite). The prevention of panic and disinformation that leads to panic must consist of the following three components:
- Enhancing the communication skills of those who spread objective information, and do fact-checking activities. This also refers to COVID-related issues.
- Supporting independent media and the growth of media literacy among the general public.
- Finally in the long term, it is an issue of gaps in the education system and in the promotion of critical thinking.
At the same time, promotion of spread of misinformation by member states is a matter of great concern.
In Armenia, we clearly see that almost all sources that spread misinformation about COVID and vaccination issues also spread a number of other non-COVID-related pieces of narratives that are favorable for the official Kremlin.
The OSCE and its member states, which have adopted democratic values, must not only work together against the COVID pandemic, but also against misinformation about the pandemic, using the above-mentioned mechanisms.
Right to freedom of nformation
The Union of Informed Citizens is dealing with legislation related to freedom of information in Armenia as well as in Nagorno Karabakh, which is a disputed territory.
Both in Armenia and in Nagorno Karabakh, legislation is quite liberal. State agencies have to provide information in 5 days if it is not classified or does not contain personal data or trade secrets.
But we still face some issues with the implementation of the law. In Armenia we have observed a number of cases when a sensitive piece of information is classified without any objective need, and even with violation of the decision of the Constitutional Court which regulates the issue. Sometimes we can observe abuse of the institution of the trade secret in order to reject publication of information which is important for the public.
In Nagorno Karabakh the implementation problem is mainly related to telecommunication regulations and state support to the mining sector through abuse of trade secret regulation.
Another issue in Armenia is related to the protection of the right of freedom of information in courts. Usually the court verdicts are made more than a year after the lawsuit is filed, because courts are overloaded.
At the same time, I would like to emphasize the highest degree of transparency of the authorities on COVID-related issues both in Armenia and in Nagorno Karabakh. Every day detailed reports are published with all the information that does not include personal data.
For example, numbers of occupied and free hospital beds and intensive care beds for each hospital are available online. Even during the worst days of the pandemic, the government was very frank, including when providing information about the number of people who died because the healthcare system was overloaded.
But coming back to the main problem, Union of Informed Citizens would like to underline that any information related to public money should be as transparent as possible. It can be kept in secret exclusively when its publication can really endanger public security or can lead to violation of other fundamental rights.
At the same time we would recommend to envisage a special procedure for court hearings on freedom of information issues to have the final decisions in reasonable deadlines.