State Department-backed Armenian project to promote democracy instead features false information
The website claim’s the government of prime minister Nikol Pashinyan ‘completely failed’ to fight coronavirus and warned against the use a future vaccine. Photograph: Annegret Hilse/Reuters
The US government is funding a website in Armenia which is spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, including warnings that Armenians ought to “refuse” future vaccine programmes.
The website, Medmedia.am, was launched with the help of a US State Department grant meant to promote democracy, but instead has been used to promote false information about Covid-19, according to an investigation by the British news website openDemocracy.
Among Medmedia’s most popular articles are pieces that have called Covid-19 a “fake pandemic” and falsely reported that a morgue offered to pay hundreds of dollars to a dead patient’s family if they claimed the death had been caused by the coronavirus.
The grant was awarded by the State Department to a group called the Armenian Association of Young Doctors, which launched the website last year and is led by a controversial doctor called Gevorg Grigoryan.
He has been known for his strong criticism of the government’s health ministry and its vaccine programmes, and has a history of anti-LGBT statements, including remarks posted on Facebook in 2014 in which he called for gay people to be burned.
Grigoryan, who has claimed that he is not opposed to vaccinations, has teamed up with a prominent journalist and lawyer, both with reported ties to a far-right party called Veto, to create what they called a public fact-finding group on the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
This week, the group’s official Facebook page claimed that the government led by prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who led a nonviolent reform movement before his election, had “completely failed the fight” against coronavirus. Grigoryan said he was not aligned with a specific political party and denied that Medmedia or the fact-finding project were political fronts aimed at opposing the government.
“If we look at everything from a political point of view then we’re not going to go very far,” he said. “But from an expert point of view, the statistics speak for themselves.”
Armenia has reported about 7,100 coronavirus cases and a rising rate of infections. The country has also grappled with a drop in childhood vaccine rates, which the health minister, Arsen Torosyan, has blamed on anti-vaccine propaganda.
The State Department declined to comment on questions about the size of the grant or its review process.
A post on the US embassy’s website in Armenia said grants under the Democracy Commission Small Grants Program – which are worth up to $50,000 – are awarded on a competitive basis to local NGOs and are meant to focus on issues like transparency and accountability in governance, advancing human rights, eliminating corruption, and enhancing economic growth and development.
But the openDemocracy investigation found that, while Medmedia had published some news articles, most of its opinion pieces were republished Facebook posts that spread false information.
Grigoryan told the Guardian that the US embassy in Armenia had contacted him with “concerns” about op-eds and articles on the site. But, he said: “I am sure I was able to answer all those questions and those concerns disappeared. The site is not an anti-vaccine forum.”
He would not say how much money was given to his Armenian Association for Young Doctors by the US embassy, or how much of that was invested in the website. He called it a “small amount” and addressed questions on specifics to the US embassy. The grant period is due to end in several days, he said.
A disclaimer on the Medmedia website said the site was US-funded but that its articles “do not necessarily reflect” the views of the US government.
Grigoryan defended the articles in an interview with the Guardian, saying the website had been “created to make the voice of the public heard”. “If someone says that Armenia should refuse vaccinations and the government refutes this with weighty proof, it’s already served [the public] good,” he said.
Asked specifically about the articles, he said that he didn’t share their opinions but said they would not be taken down. “It’s not fake news,” he said. “It’s the opinion of a specialist, the opinion of a doctor, of the head of an NGO. It’s an opinion. So it’s not fake news.”
He denied that posting the articles could pose a public health risk, saying they would “initiate discussion.”
While he denied being personally opposed to vaccines, he claimed the articles on his site were representative of skepticism about vaccines in Armenian society.
“The problem is that due to the government’s incorrect [information] policy these kinds of articles are becoming widespread,” he said.
Grigoryan said his past anti-LGBT statements, including one that said he would “always fight against gays,” had been misinterpreted and were prompted by specific cases of “anti-social behaviour.” Asked about a Facebook post from 2014 in which he wrote that “gays should be burnt and in a public place”, he said that the post was a reference to the film Pulp Fiction and was meant as a joke.