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, according to an investigation by the British news website openDemocracy.

The website, Medmedia.am, was launched in 2019 – amid a mushrooming of new ultra-conservative groups following Armenia’s 2018 ‘velvet revolution’ – by an NGO led by a controversial doctor called Gevorg Grigoryan.

Medmedia.am was established with money from the Democracy Commission Small Grants programme, awarded to the NGO by the US embassy in Armenia last year. These grants, intended to “promote democracy”, are worth up to $50,000 a year.

In May, the site’s most-read page called on Armenians to “refuse all potential [COVID-19] vaccination programmes”. It has had 131,000 views and 28,000 social media likes (big numbers in a country with a population of less than 3 million).

The second most popular piece claimed, incorrectly, that a morgue offered 100,000 AMD ($205) to a dead patient’s relatives to sign a document saying the death was caused by COVID-19. Other recent pieces have described COVID-19 as a “fake pandemic”.

This week, the group’s official Facebook page claimed that the government led by prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, had “completely failed the fight” against coronavirus.

A disclaimer at the bottom of the Medmedia.am website says that it has been “funded through a Department of State Public Affairs Section grant” but that its articles “do not necessarily reflect” the views of the US government.

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. The US State Department declined to comment on questions about the size of the grant or its review process.

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.

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