Armenia’s leading media associations on Monday expressed serious concern over government plans to effectively criminalize libel and defamation, saying that they pose a threat to freedom of expression.
A new Criminal Code drafted by a working group set up by the Armenian Justice Ministry would make it a crime for media outlets to publish untrue information about crimes committed by government officials or other individuals. Such “false denunciations” would be punishable by up to two years in prison.
Armenia’s existing Criminal Code already sets punishments for false denunciation. But they do not apply to the work of mass media.
Eleven non-governmental organizations dealing with press freedom strongly objected to the current Armenian government’s apparent intention to extend criminal liability for such offenses to journalists and editors.
“It could inhibit the work of media and result in very serious limitations in terms of sources of information,” said Ashot Melikian of the Yerevan-based Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech. He warned that the new legislation, if enacted, will make it much harder for media outlets to obtain or publish “confidential information important to the public.”
“In this sense, this is a threat to press freedom,” stressed Melikian.
All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during the rule of former President Serzh Sarkisian.
“We have stated under all authorities and want to reiterate now that nobody must be sent to jail for their speech,” Melikian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Speech must be countered with speech or through civil lawsuits.”
He said that existing Armenian laws allow the authorities to fight against fake or slanderous reports with libel suits.
But Ara Gabuzian, the head of the Justice Ministry task force that has drafted the bill, defended its proposal to criminalize the dissemination of such reports.
“False denunciation is a deliberate crime. People spreading such reports must be conscious that they are spreading lies,” said Gabuzian, who is also a senior law professor at Yerevan State University.