US taxpayer money has funded a controversial health news website in Armenia that is spreading ‘incredibly dangerous’ COVID-19 misinformation, an investigation by openDemocracy has revealed.
Medmedia.am was created in 2019 after a grant was awarded to the Armenian Association of Young Doctors (AAYD), a local NGO, by the US Embassy’s Democracy Commission Small Grants programme. The website is a news and content portal that often republishes Facebook posts.
A number of these posts repurposed as supposed news articles feature conspiracy theories and other falsehoods about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The site’s most-read piece, with over 100,000 views, calls on Armenians to ‘refuse all potential [COVID-19] vaccination programmes’, while another falsely claimed that a morgue offered a ֏100,000 ($200) bribe to the relatives of a deceased patient so they would claim that the death was the result of COVID-19.
The US Embassy in Yerevan confirmed to openDemocracy that Medmedia.am was set up under a grant it had awarded to a Yerevan-based NGO. The Embassy would not confirm the exact value of the grant nor comment on the misinformation published on the website. They did, however, state that the money was initially given in order to ‘reduce corruption risks’ in the healthcare sector.
The maximum possible amount that could have been awarded to the NGO is $50,000.
The investigation also discovered that the Armenian Association of Young Doctors was also ‘subgranted’ €10,000 in EU funds through another NGO. The EU delegation to Armenia told openDemocracy that the anti-vaccination positions of AAYD ‘developed well after the end of the EU-funded grant’ and that they did not directly support the NGO.
‘Gays should be burnt’
The Armenian Association of Young Doctors was founded by Armenian doctor, Gevorg Grigoryan.
According to openDemocracy Grigoryan has made a number of public statements in which he promoted false medical claims and conspiracy theories, including that the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) is intended only for gay men.
He has also voiced violent homophobic rhetoric, stating that ‘gays should be burnt in a public place’.
He recently founded a new NGO, supposedly meant to ‘fact-check’ the Armenian governments COVID-19 claims, together with Ani Hovhannisyan, a prominent member of the far-right VETO group.
The authorities in Armenia have been outspoken about the dangers of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as infections spike in the country, with over 8,216 confirmed cases as of 28 May, 4,816 active cases, and 113 deaths.
[Read more on OC Media: Armenia continues to reopen despite steady growth in new cases of COVID-19]
On 21 May, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned that if current trends continue, Armenia will have 20,000 cases by 12 June.
Meanwhile, the country is starting to send COVID-19 patients who are suffering mild symptoms of the virus back home, as the country is running out of hospital beds.