By Anna Saghabalian in Prague
Armenia has committed itself to imprisoning journalists on libel charges only in exceptional circumstances, signing up to a new pan-European declaration that seeks to protect the media’s right to “disseminate negative information and critical opinions” about government officials.
RFE/RL learned on Friday that a senior Armenian diplomat was among the signatories of the document adopted by the Council of Europe’s governing Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg on Thursday.
“The state, the government or any other institution of the executive, legislative or judicial branch may be subject to criticism in the media,” reads the declaration. “Because of their dominant position, these institutions as such should not be protected by criminal law against defamatory or insulting statements. Where, however, these institutions enjoy such a protection, this protection should be applied in a restrictive manner, avoiding in any circumstances its use to restrict freedom to criticize.”
Under Armenia’s criminal code libel is a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison. The clause has been criticized by officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Western diplomats based in Yerevan. In a joint open letter published last July, they described it as a “serious threat to freedom of expression,” saying defamation of character should be regulated by civil, not criminal, law.
The call was rejected by the Armenian authorities that argued, among other things, that libel has not been decriminalized in some European countries. The Council of Europe declaration signed by them emphasizes that defamation should not lead to imprisonment “unless the seriousness of the violation of the rights or reputation of others makes it a strictly necessary and proportionate penalty.”
According to a member of an Armenian parliament committee dealing with media matters, Ruben Hovsepian, the new pan-European safeguards will not make much difference in Armenia because criminal prosecution of journalists there is rare. “Our press is free especially vis-à-vis government officials,” Hovsepian said. “So that provision will not change many things.”
The declaration’s stated goal is to complicate government officials’ broader ability to restrict media freedoms by prosecuting or suing journalists for reports critical of their activities. “Political figures should not enjoy greater protection of their reputation and other rights than other individuals, and thus more severe sanctions should not be pronounced under domestic law against the media where the latter criticize political figures,” it says.
This provision runs counter to the Armenian criminal code that calls for a short jail term against anyone convicted of insulting a government official in the media, publications or a public speech. Punishment for insulting ordinary citizens is softer. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian admitted last September that the differentiation is “unfair” and should be changed.