By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian confirmed on Monday the Armenian authorities’ refusal to decriminalize libel offences, contrary to recent calls from European organizations and governments.
“In many European countries there is criminal liability for libel,” Baghdasarian said. “I don’t think that libel is such a pleasant thing that people should not be held accountable for it.”
The speaker, whose Orinats Yerkir Party is a member of the governing coalition, thus appeared to finally reject the calls for the abolition of a corresponding provision in Armenia’s new criminal code made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In a joint open letter to Baghdasarian last July, the head of the OSCE office in Yerevan as well as senior U.S. and European diplomats described it as a “serious threat to freedom of expression.” They said libel should regulated by civil, not criminal, law.
The controversial clause upheld the Soviet-era practice of making defamation of character a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. It was strongly defended by one of the authors of the new code, Mikael Grigorian, at a media seminar in Yerevan late last month. Baghdasarian’s comment made its abolition even more unlikely.
The speaker at the same time noted that he supports the OSCE’s objections to another provision that calls for a short jail term for anyone convicted of insulting a government official in the mass media, publications or public speech. Punishment for insulting ordinary citizens is softer. Baghdasarian said the differentiation is “unfair” and should be reviewed.
Baghdasarian spoke at a session of the National Assembly in response to concerns voiced by several opposition lawmakers. They raised the issue in connection with the parliament debate on a controversial government bill on mass media which is scheduled for Tuesday.
The bill, drafted by the Justice Ministry, was rejected by the previous Armenian parliament last spring after vociferous protests by some local journalists who believe it would restrict press freedom. It was reintroduced to the current legislature this summer after undergoing some changes.
The chairwoman of the parliament committee on science, education and media, Hranush Hakobian, announced on Friday that she has reached an agreement with the government that addresses most of the critics’ concerns. Those relate, in particular, to a provision obligating all media outlets to disclose their sources of funding and sponsorship, something which has rarely been done in Armenia. Hakobian said she will insist that the requirement be dropped from the draft law.
She said that journalists will also be obliged to disclose their confidential sources of information only to judges hearing related criminal cases. She added that the new version of the bill will also explicitly ban government censorship and any monopoly on the publishing, broadcasting and distribution of mass media.
Still, the promised changes were rejected on Monday by the National Press Club, the most vocal opponent of the proposed legislation. In a statement, the club claimed that the authorities continue to seek a tight rein on the media. It also circulated its own alternative draft law on the media. The parliament is unlikely to consider it, though.