The state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, last week asked the court to look into corresponding articles of Armenia’s Civil Code and consider declaring them unconstitutional. He expressed serious concern about their active enforcement by Armenian courts.
Amendments to those articles enacted last year decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences. At least 15 libel suits have since been filed by current and former government officials, including former President Robert Kocharian, and government-linked businessmen.
In a joint statement, the newspaper editors urged the Constitutional Court to at least suspend those clauses pending consideration of Andreasian’s petition. They said the Armenian authorities have used the changes with the sole aim of strangling independent media financially or introducing self-censorship among journalists.
Bagrat Yesayan, editor of the “Yerkir” daily and one of the signatories, said press freedom in Armenia is under serious threat. “There is a danger that in the very near future we will have a situation where print media outlets, unable to comply with court decisions and pay heavy libel damages, will have to shut down. In that case the print media landscape will simply disappear in this country,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Ashot Melikian of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech welcomed the appeals to the country’s highest judicial body. But he suggested that the legal provisions, no matter how unfair, can hardly be deemed unconstitutional.
“It’s just that there are unclear clauses there that can be interpreted in a subjective way,” Melikian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.