The National Assembly passed a package of relevant amendments to various Armenian laws in the first reading despite serious concerns expressed by local media associations and journalists.
The amendments would allow government officials and other individuals to demand up to 2 million drams ($5,000) in damages from media outlets that disseminated slanderous or offensive statements about them.
Critics say 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 in the first place and that its abolition is therefore a largely symbolic measure.
They also downplay another amendment that toughened fines for government officials and other officials “impeding legitimate professional activities of a journalist.”
The Yerevan Press Club is worried that the measure will make it easier for authorities to silence newspapers and other media outlets critical of their policies. Its chairman, Boris Navasardian, also argued on Thursday that Armenian courts are susceptible to government case and will not necessarily adjudicate libel cases fairly.
“The courts are not sufficiently independent and not sufficiently trusted by citizens,” Navasardian told RFE/RL. “Nor do they have sufficient knowledge to give a proper characterization of a particular case.”
Navasardian and other media professionals also said the legal definitions of libel and insult are too vague in Armenia. Armen Baghdasarian, deputy editor of the pro-opposition daily “Chorrord Ishkhanutyun,” claimed that government officials can present any critical report as defamation of character. Libel suits against Armenian journalists and media have not been common until now.
Edik Baghdasarian, a prominent investigative journalist and editor of the Hetq.am news service, likewise alleged a government attempt to “rein in the media.” “I don’t trust any law adopted by that National Assembly because I didn’t elect it, and neither did most voters,” he told RFE/RL.
The controversial amendments were drafted late last year by three parliamentarians representing the political parties making up President Serzh Sarkisian’s governing coalition. The government largely endorsed them in late December. It said the bill will contribute to a “full-fledged protection of human rights” in Armenia.