Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan faced accusations of ethics and privacy violations on Friday as he continued to publicize photographs of people not following safety rules designed to stop the spread of coronavirus in Armenia.
Pashinyan urged supporters to send him such material earlier this week as part of his efforts to get Armenians to practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and wear face masks. He has since received and posted on his Facebook page dozens of photographs and even videos of unprotected people partying, hugging each other, riding overcrowded buses or dangerously queuing up outside various offices.
Some of these posts have prompted criticism from civic activists, opposition figures and social media users. They were especially upset with a close-up photo of a young woman riding a commuter bus in Yerevan. The mini-skirt clad woman did not wear a protective mask, unlike two other youths who sat next to her.
Pashinyan sarcastically captioned the image as “Unhidden beauty.” Some of his followers denounced the woman and even made offensive comments about her.
But many other Facebook users accused the prime minister of disrespecting the commuter and breaching her privacy.
Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information said that Pashinyan’s posts run counter to an Armenian law on personal data protection even if they pursue a legitimate goal.
“It is obvious that the photos and videos depict concrete people,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I believe that in this case identifying people to make them recognizable is not at all necessary for achieving the goal [of containing the coronavirus epidemic.]”
Pashinyan was also criticized by the mainstream opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK). “Even if you sincerely want to fight the epidemic, it is inadmissible to violate other citizens’ dignity and intrude into their private lives with that fight,” said Taron Simonyan, a senior LHK parliamentarian.
Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Arman Tatoyan, also voiced serious concerns. “I am calling on all social media users to not disseminate the girl’s photograph, regardless of whether or not her face is covered,” he wrote on Facebook. “If you have already disseminated the photograph please delete it and screenshots containing offensive comments.”
“When posting material public figures must bear in mind that no matter how legitimate their goal is it could violate a concrete person’s rights,” added Tatoyan.
Pashinyan deleted the controversial Facebook post later in the day, saying that he did not mean to offend anyone. “I apologize to all compatriots who have been the targets of harsh words on my page,” he wrote. “But this campaign of public oversight will continue.”
Gayane Abrahamyan, a parliament deputy from Pashinyan’s My Step bloc, defended the prime minister’s online “flash mob.”“There are no breaches of personal data,” she said.
Over the past week Pashinyan has appealed to citizens on a daily basis amid the rapidly growing number of new coronavirus cases and deaths registered in Armenia. He has said that the epidemic will be defeated if they follow the safety rules set by the health authorities.
Pashinyan has also repeatedly complained about widespread noncompliance with the rules. Opposition members and other critics have responded by accusing him of trying to shift the blame for his government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis to the public.
The Armenian Ministry of Health said on Friday morning that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increased by 596 to 11,817 over the past day. It also reported 7 more deaths caused by the virus. The official death toll from the epidemic thus reached 183.
Pashinyan announced on Monday that he and members of his family have tested positive for the virus. He said on Thursday that none of them has shown any symptoms of the disease so far.