By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A high-ranking Armenian official reacted angrily on Saturday to senior Western diplomats’ calls for a change of legislation allowing imprisonment of journalists and other individuals accused of libel.
Deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian claimed that the open letter by a senior OSCE official as well as top diplomats from the U.S. and five European embassies in Yerevan is “incompatible with a diplomatic status” and amounts to meddling in Armenia’s internal affairs.
The letter, also signed by representatives of several Armenian journalist associations and Western foundations, urged the authorities to remove provisions of Armenia’s new criminal code that make libel a crime punishable by up to 3 years in jail. The code also allows courts to jail anyone convicted of publicly insulting a government officials. Similar insults directed against ordinary can only lead to a heavy fine.
According to the Western diplomats and other signatories of the letter, all of this “seriously threatens freedom of expression in Armenia” and contradicts the country’s international obligations. The unusually blunt way in which they conveyed their concerns was rejected as “absolutely unacceptable” by Torosian, however.
“No one has the right to force Armenia’s parliament to take a particular decision or amend laws. Unfortunately, they think they can do that,” he told RFE/RL. Torosian specifically laid the blame on the British head of the OSCE office in Yerevan, Roy Reeve, accusing the latter of “repeatedly treating our country disrespectfully.”
Torosian, who is a leading member of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party, said the Armenian leadership is ready to work with foreign “experts,” but not diplomats, on ways of brining its laws into conformity with European standards. He was more ambiguous about the wisdom of criminalizing libel, saying he is against jailing journalists but complaining at the same time that civil law “often does not entail consequences” for untrue media reports. Most Armenian journalists, he argued, can not afford paying heavy fines imposed for defamation of character.