The recent case of Iravunk vs the LGBT community has shown a terrifying lack of political will from Armenian authorities to prosecute hate-speech peddlers who put the lives and well-being of individuals at risk. A court case leveled against Hovhannes Galajyan, editor-in-chief of Iravunk, this week showed that despite his newspaper and its staff actively attacking individuals in the LGBT community that no prosecution would be made.
The case will now be taken to an appeal court to fight the decision, but many worry that the result will be the same, seeing the recent decision as a defeat to Armenia’s LGBT community.
The decision not to prosecute shows the world that Armenian authority is willing to accept hateful and violent persecution of an entire group of their population if the persecutors in question support the current establishment. The decision has shown that although homophobia does not officially exist in the halls of power that it is strongly supported in the public sphere. The decision has shown that in the eyes of the law LGBT Armenian’s lives are worth less than that of the general population and they are a group unworthy of support and protection.
Despite the dangerous hate-speech promoted by Iravunk echoing fascist rhetoric the authorities did not distance themselves from Galajyan and his newspaper, but instead chose to honor the publication’s recent 25th anniversary with a special medal. The Armenian government have strong ties to Iravunk, who are vocal and active supporters of the current leadership. What’s more the government benefits from Iravunk’s homophobia. Current leaders do not have the political conviction, or the need, to openly attack the LGBT community, choosing instead to support the likes of Iravunk who maintain an atmosphere of bigotry that stands to support the government’s political platform.
But Iravunk does not perpetuate homophobia and hatred purely for political means, nor do thy, as they often claim, act to protect the traditional culture of Armenia. The reasons are numerous, as well as the justifications they give vary, but one thing that has always remained a strong motivator is this: profit.
When you remove whatever flimsy argument Iravunk pretends to be motivated by the cold reality is that, in truth, an atmosphere of paranoid homophobia is a profitable (and influential) atmosphere for some.
Data revealed last year showed that among the most common words searched online in Armenia were terms such as ‘gay’, ‘faggots’ and ‘homos’ (or their Armenian equivalents). The searches revealed that homophobia is not just widespread in Armenian culture, but is considered a passtime by some. Many people, particularly young men, actively seek out articles and news stories about LGBT topics in Armenia. Perhaps they enjoy the sense of outrage they feel, perhaps they feel deeply driven to seek out LGBT discussions to add their opinion, or perhaps they are themselves closeted homosexuals struggling to deal with their own sexuality.
The exact reasons for this phenomenon are hard to pinpoint but the additional factors that encourage this behavior are easily identified. When it comes to the Armenian media any subject related to LGBTI issues is bound to draw attention. Many people will be drawn in with sensationalised headlines designed to shock the conservative sensibilities of many Armenian’s. What results is a frenzy of online comments and keyboard anger that drives up a websites views.
Editors and publishers will happily post vapid articles on gay celebrities, LGBT protests and anything related to gay, lesbian or trans individuals in order to pull in readers. One fine example of this is Conchita Wurst, the Eurovision Song Contest winner whose fame has gone on far longer than it might otherwise have in Armenia, thanks in part to the regular coverage of her concerts and performances.
The Armenian media knows how to exploit LGBT issues to draw in the public and editors, writers and publishers are not above employing casual homophobia in order to increase the outrage. Sensationalised headlines, heavily skewered facts, playing into offensive stereotypes and plain and simple lies are tactics all used by the Armenian media to increase their readers and viewers.
More readers and viewers equals more advertising revenue. Therefore if homophobia equals readers then homophobia also equals money. It is a disappointing truth seen across the mainstream and fringe media in which the media is happy to pit the conservative Armenian readers against the LGBT community in order to drive up profits.
It is difficult to guess how committed the media in Armenia would be to marginalising sexual minorities if profit were removed as a factor. But we can assume that although it may not be the only factor that it is one of the leading factors (if not the number one) that has helped create this climate of homophobia.
There is no easy solution to ending this issue when the financial interests of even the most mainstream Armenian news sources are in some part shaped by their behavior. Even the defenders of the LGBT community who attempt to fight bigotry in the media often fall into the money trap. When Iravunk began to make international headlines following the recent court case the editors no doubt delighted at the additional attention that drew readers to their website and sold copies on street corners. To them any publicity is good publicity and they were no doubt aware of the level of immunity their support from the government warranted them.
The indifferent and callous form of bigotry seen within the Armenian media could in theory be directed at any minority, but the LGBT community have been placed in an unfortunate situation in which they are modeled as the destroyers of traditional values – they are lauded as the targets of hatred and persecution. Their well-being and safety is sacrificed in exchange for the political benefits gained from their lack of support.
When Iravunk claim to protect the interests of Armenians they are lying. In fact what they are doing is turning the conservative community on an already vulnerable group of Armenians to suit their own needs. They are created tension and hatred within Armenia, turning Armenians against other Armenians in what amounts to a witch hunt with no conclusion.
The claim that they have have Armenia’s interests at heart is hypocritical and callously cruel when the reality of their actions drives an already fragile culture apart and divides Armenia into imaginary groups designed only to suit their political ideals.
Iravunk’s ‘blacklist’ was the inevitable outcome of the homophobic climate surrounding the Armenian media. When media sources are free to resort to more and more outrageous acts of homophobia to increase their influence we can perhaps fear a time in the future when even the mainstream news in Armenia finds it acceptable to actively persecute LGBT individuals.
Authorities, for now, are happy to allow and even support this form of behavior. The actions of Iravunk have supported the current government’s political platform and helped distract citizens from the real problems facing their country.
Homophobia in the media is an issue not solved overnight, it is something deeply embedded in the culture of Armenia. And in order to fight it we must understand its true origins, as well as the false justifications under which it is continued. We must understand that the persecution of LGBT individuals in no way protects Armenian values and interests. We must understand also that those who claim to have Armenian interests at heart are no more than liars and hypocrites happy to divide the Armenian culture in order to line their pockets and further their political agendas.
Tom Ana is a British-born activist, blogger and charity worker currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor of Caucasus Equality News. You can follow him on Twitter here.