The Armenian government largely endorsed on Thursday a controversial bill that would decriminalize libel but impose heavier fines on mass media found guilty of such offences.
A package of relevant amendments to two Armenian laws was drafted recently by three parliamentarians representing the political parties making up President Serzh Sarkisian’s governing coalition. It would allow government officials and other individuals to demand up to 2 million drams ($5,300) in damages from media outlets that disseminated slanderous or offensive statements about them.
Armenian press groups and several newspapers have expressed serious concern about the bill, saying that the authorities could use it to economically strangle media outlets regularly criticizing them. They argue that the existing Criminal Code clause envisaging a short prison sentence for defamation of character has rarely been enforced in Armenia and that its abolition would therefore be a largely symbolic measure.
Nonetheless, the government gave a mostly positive assessment of the bill during its weekly meeting chaired by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian. A government statement said the proposed amendments would facilitate a “full-fledged protection of human rights” in Armenia. But it said government support for their passage is conditional on “a number of clarifications.”
Speaking at the cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian said the bill contains “serious technical and substantive shortcomings.” “I think that only after addressing them should the National Assembly adopt this law,” he said.
Danielian also revealed that last year the government effectively suspended criminal liability for “insulting and slandering officials.”