Online Revolution in the Making?: Blogging Comes of Age in Armenia

Online Revolution in the Making?: Blogging Comes of Age in Armenia

The unconference attracted bloggers, journalists and new media specialists from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

The BarCamp also provided perhaps the first opportunity for bloggers from Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet face to face.
The idea of over a hundred people from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe gathering at an open air event held in the grounds of an ethnographical museum in the capital of the Republic of Georgia with no fixed agenda might at first sound like a recipe for disaster, but the concept of BarCamps is fast becoming popular the world over. An international network of participant-generated conferences – or “unconferences” usually focusing on the Internet and New Media – had come to the Caucasus.

The first ever BarCamp was held in Palo Alto, California, three years ago and over 30 have since been held worldwide. The Tbilisi event staged on 7-8 June was the first in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan will be staging its own at the end of August. Elsewhere in the former Soviet space, BarCamps have been held in the Baltic Republics, Ukraine and Belarus while Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia will hold their own later this year.

The BarCamp in Tbilisi was followed by a two-day workshop funded by the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the National Endowment for Democracy on new media and blogging. The training by the Prague-based Transitions Online for participants from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia is part of the online publication’s continued interest in promoting blogging in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

From social networks to the role of the blogs during elections and using mobile phone or wireless technologies to campaign for social and environmental issues, BarCamps have taken on new dimensions in the former Soviet Union. Although Internet penetration in the three South Caucasus republics remains quite low – 12.3 percent for Azerbaijan, 7.1 percent for Georgia and 5.9 percent for Armenia in 2007 – new tools exist for democracy building and encouraging civic participation, especially among youth.

Blogs are already showing great potential as a medium for promoting democratization and anti-corruption practices in countries such as Armenia. Although precise figures are unavailable, it is estimated that there ARE as many as 3,000 bloggers in Armenia and the Diaspora, 8,000 in Azerbaijan, and 10-15,000 in Georgia. Although most are inactive, topics discussed by the most popular are varied, but given the current phase of elections in all three republics, political activity has recently increased.

In Armenia, where a post-election state of emergency limited the media to publishing only official government news for 20 days after the March 1 clashes, blogs moved in to fill the gap. Although Internews Media Lawyer David Sandukhchyan argued that blogs were technically still media outlets, few bloggers adhered to the state of emergency restrictions. Both government and opposition supporters quickly established new blogs or used existing ones to wage an information war on the Internet.

Artur Papyan, Armenia Country Director for the Media Diversity Institute (MDI) and a prolific blogger, says the result was nothing short of a revolution in the information sphere. “Blogs were the only alternative to the mass media, especially as independent and pro-opposition online media sites were blocked or censored. Blogs registered phenomenal numbers in terms of readers,” he explains, adding that the Internet also provided a remarkable opportunity for media outlets such as A1 Plus.

The pro-opposition TV station deprived of its broadcasting frequency in 2002 might still remain off the air, but video sharing sites such as YouTube allowed the embattled media outlet to effectively resume its work by publishing clips and reports online. So serious was the development for the authorities in Yerevan that YouTube was blocked during the state of emergency period. However, many people used anonymous proxy servers to circumvent the restriction.

“In terms of video blogging, the A1plus and E-channel YouTube channels registered a huge number of viewers,” says Papyan, who advised A1 Plus on using the medium. “E-Channel had over 30,000 viewers per day and I’m sure A1 Plus had triple that amount. Video blogs and audio podcasts will dominate the scene as soon as the situation with Internet connectivity improves and when 3G mobile phone services become available in Armenia.”

The role blogs played during post-election developments in Armenia also took center stage in the presentation made at the Caucasus BarCamp by Internews’ Gegham Vardanyan. The E-Channel editor also hoped that presentations by others would provide him with new ideas to use if such events were to be repeated. “I think that if such a situation happened again, although I hope that it doesn’t, bloggers and media outlets will be more organized and able to present even more information to readers.

The recognition of blogs as the new Samizdat, the Soviet-era practice of the clandestine dissemination of censored literature and other media, has already been acknowledged by various academics and civil rights activists involved in democracy-building in the CIS. It is perhaps for this reason that blogs are now seen as a viable medium for promoting change by international donor organizations. Among the sponsors of the BarCamp in Tbilisi, for example, were the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A number of online media outlets have incorporated features associated with blogging such as commenting by readers. ArmeniaNow and A1 Plus have their own blogs, with the former being most notable in that it was established to circumvent state of emergency restrictions on the media in March. However, MDI’s Artur Papyan sounds a note of caution.

With international donor organizations now starting to show increased interest in blogs, Papyan says that there is also the danger that both the authorities and sponsors will seek to control content. “I'm concerned because everyone has started to realize that blogging has great potential. While such a situation should be welcomed, it also means that there is the possibility that control could destroy this potential unless handled correctly and in consultation with those already working in this area.”

Onnik Krikorian is the Caucasus Editor for Global Voices Online, a citizen-journalist project established at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He will be presenting the example of blogging in Armenia during the 2008 presidential election at the project’s Global Summit on June 26-27 in Budapest, Hungary.