By Emil Danielyan
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and senior Western diplomats in Yerevan have urged the Armenian authorities to scrap legal provisions allowing them to jail journalists for libel, saying that those “seriously threaten freedom of expression.”
In an extraordinary letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian publicized Friday, the head of the OSCE office in Yerevan, the ambassadors of Britain and Germany as well as senior diplomats from the U.S. and Italian missions said the provisions run counter to European standards to which Armenia had committed itself.
The letter, also signed by representatives of several local and international media organizations, referred to three articles of Armenia’s recently adopted criminal code that make libel a criminal offence punishable by up to 3 years in prison. The code also carries a short jail sentence against anyone convicted of insulting a government official in the mass media, publications or public speech.
The OSCE official, Ambassador Roy Reeve, and the other signatories of the letter expressed concern at the controversial provisions and called for their removal from the code. “We would hope that you share our view that libel and insult should be decriminalized and that legal solutions should be found in the field of civil, not criminal law,” the letter reads.
“The position of the OSCE on this matter is clear: libel laws should not be included in the Criminal Code in the first place,” Reeve said in a separate statement. “Should there be a provision, it should not include imprisonment as a punishment. Secondly, there should not be more protection for a representative of authority in case of insult. All citizens are equal.”
There was no immediate reaction on Friday from Baghdasarian and other Armenian officials.
The Armenian libel legislation, a holdover from the Soviet era, is very different from similar laws in the West, stipulating that defamation of character does not have to be malicious and deliberate to be deemed a crime. It has been occasionally used against journalists and other individuals critical of the authorities.
In March 2002, for example, Armenian prosecutors brought criminal charges against the editor of a pro-opposition daily for allegedly insulting the then head of the state aviation agency. The charges were unexpectedly dropped a month later.
In June 2002 the authorities arrested a man in the southern town of Ararat for writing and circulating a poem that implicitly accused President Robert Kocharian of orchestrating the October 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament. The man, Janik Adamian, was set free after spending two months in jail.