By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia has made “some important progress” in legally protecting freedom of expression but has yet to fulfill its related commitments to the Council of Europe, according to a British media watchdog.
The organization, called Article 19, voiced on Monday “serious concerns” regarding the status of press freedoms in the country, singling out the lack of pluralism in its electronic media and the authorities’ failure to decriminalize libel offences.
“In some cases, the authorities have initiated retrogressive legislative measures which threaten to reverse some of the achievements,” it said in a statement scrutinizing the legal framework for Armenian media activities.
A large part of the document is devoted to Armenia’s new criminal code that envisages heavy fines and up to five years’ imprisonment for those convicted of defamation of character. The penalties are particularly harsh in cases where journalists are deemed to have slandered government officials or politicians.
“These provisions fail in important ways to meet the legally recognized standards of the Council of Europe in this field, as well as international best practice,” Article 19 said. The group called for a complete abolition of criminal liability for journalists.
The Armenian authorities have resisted such calls until now. Last month they signed up to a Council of Europe declaration that seeks to protect the media’s right to “disseminate negative information and critical opinions” about government. Along with other signatory states, Yerevan pledged to jail journalists on libel charges only in exceptional circumstances.
Article 19 also subjected to strong criticism the Armenian law on broadcasting which was used by the authorities for closing the country’s leading independent televisions station, A1+, two years ago. Its statement says that the National Commission on Television and Radio, charged with issuing and revoking broadcasting licenses, is not independent.
All nine members of the commission were chosen and appointed by President Robert Kocharian in 2001. One of them, Mushegh Hovsepian, denied on Tuesday that the commission has been executing Kocharian’s orders. He said Article 19 and other critics should present “concrete facts” showing that the regulatory body is biased against opponents of the regime.
On the positive side, Article 19 noted the passage last year of the laws on mass media and freedom of information which, among other things, scrapped the mandatory registration of media outlets with the Justice Ministry. “The law [on mass media] significantly improved the rules relating to the media in Armenia,” it said.