A relevant amendment to the Armenian Criminal Code drafted by pro-government lawmakers stipulates that individuals voicing “grave insults” or offending others’ dignity in an “extremely indecent manner” must be fined up to 500,000 drams (just over $1,000).
Such insults publicly and repeatedly directed at persons because of their “public activities” will be punishable by fines ranging from 1 million to 3 million drams ($2,000-$6,000) and a prison sentence of up to three months.
According to the amendment, those persons include state officials, politicians, civic activists and other public figures.
All forms of defamation and slander had been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during then President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.
Vladimir Vartanian, the pro-government chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs and the main author of the bill, said penalties for such offenses must be toughened now because verbal abuse in the country has since become widespread, especially on social media.
“This bill is primarily aimed at not so much punishing individuals resorting to grave insults as having a preventive impact and eliminating insults … from our society,” he said.
Vartanian emphasized the fact that the parliament is amending Armenia’s current Criminal Code which will be replaced in 2022 by a new code enacted earlier this year. “If we manage to achieve these results during this year there will be no need to make the same changes to the new Criminal Code,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers dismissed this explanation. One of them, Naira Zohrabian, said that the bill is aimed at holding in check the two opposition blocs to be represented in Armenia’s incoming parliament elected on June 20.
The blocs have a much tougher anti-government stance than the opposition minority in the outgoing National Assembly. Their supporters believe that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian himself has relied heavily on “hate speech” since coming to power in 2018.
The new parliament, also controlled by Pashinian’s political allies, is scheduled to hold its inaugural session on Monday.
Sofia Hovsepian, another opposition deputy who defected from Pashinian’s My Step bloc late last year, said the amendment could be used to stifle harsh criticism of the Armenian government.
Deputy Justice Minister Kristine Grigorian assured Hovsepian that the authorities will not be cracking down on any “discourse going slightly beyond criticism.”
Pashinian’s political team already sparked controversy in March this year when it pushed through the parliament a bill tripling maximum legal fines for defamation. Armenia’s leading media associations criticized the move, saying that it could be exploited by government officials and politicians to stifle press freedom.
Consequently, President Armen Sarkissian refused to sign the bill into law and asked the Constitutional Court to assess its conformity with the Armenian constitution.