Social Media and Expanding Public Discourse in Armenia

Social Media and Expanding Public Discourse in Armenia

The following originally appeared on EurasiaNet, an operating program of the Open Society Foundations.

The world witnessed how Facebook flexed its muscles in Egypt. Armenia offers a case in point in how social networking platforms are exerting quieter, yet still significant influence in broadening the public discourse.

Over the past year, several videos documenting abuse in Armenia have made their way on to YouTube, the video-sharing website, generating a wave of outrage both inside Armenia and among members of the diaspora. In a few cases, the burst of pressure generated by social networking has forced authorities to take action.

In 2009, for example, a six-minute video showed two lions unleashed on a donkey in a cage, while a small crowd watched and cheered. Local newspapers wrote that the video was shot on the property of a leading member of Armenia’s National Assembly, who is known for having a private zoo. He denied any association with the video. Regardless, the video generated discussion in Armenia about animal rights—not a regular topic of interest in the country.

Another area where abuse has been documented by human rights groups, but which often remains unaddressed, is in the military. In September 2010, a video of two Armenian servicemen being physically abused by an army major was posted on YouTube. Several days—and thousands of hits—later, Armenia’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that an investigation was underway.

The education system in Armenia has had its own share of problems, including abusive behavior on the part of some teachers. In early January, a YouTube video showed a teacher verbally and physically abusing a student in a school in the capital Yerevan. A few days later, the website of Armenia’s Ministry of Education and Science announced that the teacher had been dismissed. According to other reports, he had quit voluntarily.

In October 2010, an even more disturbing video of a teacher physically abusing students was posted on YouTube. The teacher resigned shortly thereafter.

Reaction to these videos among Armenians has differed sharply. A knee-jerk reaction of many has been to question the veracity of the videos, find justifications for the acts depicted in them, or accuse unnamed individuals of doctoring them to undermine the image of Armenia.

When the video of the abuse of the two soldiers was released, the immediate reaction by several bloggers and commentators was that the individuals depicted in the video were not Armenian soldiers, and the video was probably shot in neighboring Azerbaijan, a country that Armenia is still technically at war with over Nagorno-Karabakh. Many immediately suspected that the video was a propaganda stunt aimed at damaging morale in the Armenian army. The statement by Armenia’s Defense Ministry laid such speculations to rest, but the criticism of “making a big deal of something that happens in every army” remained.

Similarly, when the videos depicting corporal punishment in schools surfaced, many in Armenia blamed the students for misbehaving and disrespecting decent and hardworking teachers.

On the other hand, there is a growing realization that sweeping problems under the rug in order to safeguard Armenia’s image is ultimately detrimental for the nation. There were those who pointed out that exactly because abuse happens in every army in the world, there should be no need to deny or cover-up abuse when it happens in the Armenian army. The Armenian president’s chief military advisor, for example, said: “I see nothing wrong in the spread of that video. Maybe that will help the army command do a better job.”

Every day, dozens of videos relating to Armenia are uploaded on YouTube. And while most videos have little more than entertainment value, a few expose important social issues. And they are not going unnoticed.

Witnessing the discussion ensuing from these YouTube videos, activists and the public at large are realizing the power of social networking websites. And as the number of people in Armenia having access to cell phones with video cameras and high speed Internet access continues to increase, the struggle against injustices is expanding to cyberspace like never before. The country, in general, can only benefit from the greater scrutiny of its people.

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One of our Public Health Program grantees is making very effective use of the internet in raising awareness of human rights in health care settings. Not only have they set up a website bringing together resources on this issue - - but have also set up a Facebook page dedicated to the topic

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