In 2020, an Armenian editor, photographer and cameraman with Hetq, an online publication based in Yerevan, headed to the country’s eastern border with Azerbaijan. The name in Armenian means ‘trace’ and that’s what the team was doing: verifying if what their government was insisting on the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region was true.
Meanwhile in Yerevan, Hetq reporters sift through the news that their colleagues have sent back from the front.
“We had first-hand information from our colleagues,” recalled Vahe Sarukhanyan, fact checker at Hetq. But it was not easy to pass this information, because there were two fronts in this so-called information war. The Azerbaijani media reported one scenario, and the Armenian government another. Neither version really reflected what Sarukhanyan’s colleagues were reporting, that there were heavy casualties and casualties on both sides, as in any war.
The Nagorno-Karabakh border crisis dates back to the early 20th century, with the dispute being both ethnic and territorial. In 1988, just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted. Both countries have claimed sovereignty over the enclave, which is mainly populated by Armenians but is located in Azerbaijan. Occasional ceasefires have followed, but sporadic fighting has continued since 2010, killing thousands. The conflict escalated again in September 2020.
Vahe Sarukhunyan, a fact checker in Armenia with the online investigative publication Hetq
” There was a a lot of restrictions then because the government declared martial law,” Sarukhanyan explained. “It was a big challenge. But we looked at what the propaganda was compared to what our colleagues were telling us, firsthand, that was happening on the front lines.”
Today, Hetq is one of the ten independent media with which DW Akademie works in Armenia. Because journalistic fact-checking is so essential for civil society, especially in a time of chronic disinformation, DW Akademie began its projects in Armenia with funding from the European Union in October 2021. It provided grants and material, as well as support with media measures. and audience engagement analysis.
Misinformation – an old new problem
False and misleading information has been a problem in Armenia for some time. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have made it harder for media professionals to dispel misinformation. DW Akademie’s engagement in the country aims to build trust between citizens and the media.
“Regional media are the ones who really have to fight misinformation,” said Satenik Baghdasaryan, project manager of DW Akademie in Armenia. She noted that the country’s main media outlets remain in the hands of the government and that fact-checking this information is particularly difficult because verification only takes place after the information has already reached such a large number of readers and of viewers.
“Especially since 2020, war and the pandemic,” she said, “hate speech and disinformation have really picked up, along with a lot of manipulative online content. So our idea was to join forces, to have a collaborative fact-checking effort.”
“It’s all on our shoulders”
Christina Barsegyan, project manager for the NGO Investigative Journalists, which is the publisher of Hetq, has worked in fact-checking for 22 years. She acknowledges that fact-checking is both time-consuming and costly, but with misinformation so rampant, it is all the more necessary. Also, the demand has increased.
“Our audience is not just in Armenia,” she said. “We have readers in the Diaspora, in the United States, in Russia and in Azerbaijan. We often feel that everything is on our shoulders, but we see this as our mission.”
She points to Hetq’s successes, such as a series of investigations in 2020 – to which Sarukhanyan contributed – into undeclared assets belonging to dozens of senior officials and their overseas business activities. The stories, sought after for some years, lead to several resignations and the return of illegal allocations to the state budget.
Another achievement, in 2021, was the result of an investigation and fact-checking of the citizenship records of former President Armen Sarkissian. Sarkissian, who is a British citizen, had not disclosed that he was also a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis through investments in the country. The lack of disclosure and fact-checking led to his resignation.
“I think public expectations and attitudes towards the media have changed with this kind of work,” Baghdasaryan said. “Whether it’s fake news or erroneous official information, people have learned that official sources are not necessarily reliable. We work to spread reliable information.”