Law-enforcement authorities have raised concerns about freedom of speech in Armenia with threats to prosecute media outlets and journalists that report details of ongoing criminal investigations.
In a May 22 statement, the Office of the Prosecutor-General cited an article of the Armenian Criminal Code which makes publication of such “data” a crime punishable by heavy fines or a one-month arrest. It warned that prosecutors will now “take measures” to identify sources of information related to inquiries overseen by them.
The warning has caused alarm among Armenian media executives, press freedom activists and legal experts. They said on Tuesday that it poses a potentially serious threat to the local media.
Ara Ghazarian, an independent lawyer, noted that the legal clause cited by the prosecutors has rarely been enforced in Armenia. “Its wording is so ambiguous that a journalist cannot regulate their work in advance,” he said.
Ghazarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the clause does not define “data” not subject to publication, meaning that it can technically apply even to the names of criminal suspects under investigation.
Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Freedom of Information Center condemned the prosecutors’ statement as illegal. She argued that an Armenian law on mass media stipulates that only courts can force journalists to disclose their sources of information about serious crimes still investigated by law-enforcement bodies.
Armine Ohanian, the editor of the independent daily “Hraparak,” also called the blunt warning illegal. She claimed that the prosecutors are bullying the media to stop journalists exposing their incompetence and corrupt practices.
The critics were at a loss to explain what prompted the prosecutors to issue the statement now. Some of them note that it came just days after a high-profile shooting incident in downtown Yerevan that left five people injured and sparked a fresh outcry against what many commentators see as impunity enjoyed by government-linked individuals. The arrested shooter is a son-in-law of a former senior police officer who is currently a member of Armenia’s parliament.