US ends funding for Armenian website that spread COVID-19 misinformation

Following an openDemocracy investigation, the US ambassador to Armenia condemns disinformation and says the embassy will “tighten up procedures”. Հայերեն

Tatev.jpg Claire Provost author pic
Tatev Hovhannisyan Claire Provost
9 June 2020, 8.29am

The US ambassador to Armenia has announced that its taxpayer money will no longer support a controversial health news website that has spread misinformation about COVID-19, following an openDemocracy investigation

Amid ongoing criticism of President Donald Trump for his role in broadcasting unproven claims and conspiracy theories during the pandemic, the ambassador Lynne Tracy said: “We are very opposed to disinformation that confuses the public, that is unhelpful, particularly in a situation like a pandemic.”

In a 4 June interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Tracy said the US is doing its best to help Armenia fight coronavirus, and the embassy has not renewed its funding of the website Medmedia.am because of its “very problematic” content. 

“We've certainly learned a few things from this particular episode,” said the ambassador, adding that the embassy will be “tightening up some procedures” as a result, so that its grants promote “healthy debate but responsible debate as well”. 

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The previous week, openDemocracy revealed that the most popular article on this website, which had been established last year under a grant from the embassy, called on Armenians to refuse any coronavirus vaccine. 

This article has had more than 131,000 views (a big number in a country with a population of less than 3 million). It and other popular articles were republished, third-party Facebook posts, laid out on article pages under the byline “Med Media”.

Some of these posts also called coronavirus a “fake pandemic”, and vaccines “biological weapons”, and claimed that a morgue tried to fake a COVID-19 death.

Public health experts in both the US and Armenia said this “incredibly dangerous” content could jeopardise the country’s coronavirus response, while openDemocracy’s investigation was cited by media outlets around the world.

"We've certainly learned a few things from this particular episode"

Answering questions from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Harry Tamrazian about openDemocracy’s investigation, the ambassador said “the website in question was part of a larger grant” to a local organisation that had proposed a project focused on reducing corruption in the healthcare sector. 

Tracy, who was appointed ambassador to Armenia last year, said this grant “was awarded about a year ago and it was only very recently, in early May... that we learned that there was some posting of content that was very problematic”. 

“We contacted the grantee and asked for those posts to be taken down”, she said, but this grantee organisation “felt that this was an issue of free speech”. 

“We felt differently: we felt that free speech has to be balanced also with responsible management of a website,” said Tracy, adding that as a result, “we decided on the basis of seeing these issues to not approve an extension”.

The ambassador said the embassy’s grant ended at the end of May, and that the grantee organisation requested an extension that was not approved. It remains unclear what the value of this grant was, but they can be worth up to $50,000.  

Following openDemocracy’s investigation, Gevorg Grigoryan, founder of the grantee organisation, published a statement saying that Medmedia.am made “the voice of specialists and non-governmental organisations audible”. 

He described the investigation as “a manipulative ‘sensation’ typical of globalists”, and said “the author of the mentioned articles is not an employee of the website, but is the chairman of a public healthcare organisation and a doctor by profession”. 

Rising infections

COVID-19 cases in Armenia have now surpassed 13,000 (as of 8 June) with the prime minister among those recently infected. On Monday this week he announced that he had recovered and will return to his usual work schedule.  

“His own situation really underscores just how this virus can reach any of us,” said the ambassador, who called for a “unified effort” to respond to COVID-19 and said that the US had given $5.4 million to the Armenian government to help. 

“I appreciate how open the prime minister has been,” she added. “I think this is a real hallmark of good leadership in a crisis: communication. If the public loses trust because there's a sense of hiding information, we're in big trouble.”

In her interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is also funded with US money, Tracy was also asked about other issues including the current ongoing protests against police brutality that have swept her country. 

“The killing of George Floyd was a shocking event, a tragic event, that has been the source of a lot of pain and anguish,” she said, adding that “peaceful protesting is patriotic” and “leaders need to listen” to communities that need to be heard.

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