Under a bill passed by the National Assembly in the first reading, media outlets and individuals convicted of “slander” could be fined as much as 10 million drams ($19,200) while those making offensive claims will face a maximum fine of up to 5 million drams.
The bill involving relevant amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code was drafted last year by Alen Simonian, a deputy parliament speaker and leading member of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s My Step bloc.
In a joint statement issued in September, Armenia’s leading media organizations denounced it as a threat to the freedom of speech.
One of the signatories, Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information, insisted on Thursday that the much heavier fines could be used by the government or non-state actors to muzzle the mass media. She also argued that anonymous social media accounts will remain the main sources of slanderous information and will not be affected by the bill.
“We stated that this is a politically motivated bill which cannot contribute to the fight against irresponsible journalism, disinformation or slander,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “It is completely useless. At the same time it could deal a serious blow to the mass media and freedom of speech in general.”
The Armenian government also objected to the sharp toughening of defamation penalties. Addressing lawmakers, Deputy Justice Minister Vahe Danielian said it is disproportionate and could disrupt the “fair balance” between the freedom of expression and people’s honor and dignity.
Simonian insisted on the proposed amendments. He dismissed concerns about its impact on press freedom, saying that it will be up to Armenian courts to determine the amount of fines for various libel offenses.
Simonian’s bill was then backed by 72 deputies of the 132-member parliament.
All forms of libel were decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during the rule of former President Serzh Sarkisian. Many members of the current parliament now seem ready to make it a criminal offense again.
“If necessary I too will stand for criminalizing insults and slander,” Babken Tunian, a senior pro-government lawmaker and former journalist, said during Thursday’s parliament debate.
“I think that would be a step backwards,” countered Heriknaz Tigranian, another deputy representing the ruling bloc.