Armenia’s state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, has asked the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on controversial legislation that has led to a sharp increase in libel suits filed against media outlets critical of the government.
Andreasian is challenging legal amendments that were passed by the Armenian parliament in May last year. The amendments decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.
The number of libel suits filed against Armenian newspapers, all of them critical of the government, has soared over the past year. Two papers were fined 3 million and 6 million drams ($16,200) earlier this year.
Local media associations have reported at least 16 libel cases so far. They consider the increased number of defamation cases a serious threat to press freedom.
Andreasian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday that he has asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of these sanctions. He said the court will decide whether they are unconstitutional or are simply not properly enforced by Armenian judges.
“Perhaps provisions of the law which I am disputing lack clarity,” he added.
Incidentally, Andreasian advocated the idea of decriminalizing libel before it was put into practice along with the heftier financial penalties for defamation of character. Some Armenian media outlets claim that he is therefore also responsible for what they see as government efforts to strangle the independent and pro-opposition press financially.
Andreasian insisted, however, that he had no involvement in the drafting of the controversial amendments. “I thought that the law is in tune with international standards and norms,” he said. “But as we can see, there are problems with its enforcement.”