The amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code make “grave insults” directed at individuals because of their “public activities” crimes punishable by heavy fines and a prison sentence of up to three months. Those individuals may include government and law-enforcement officials, politicians and other public figures.
Invoking the new Criminal Code clauses, the Armenian police launched earlier this month criminal proceedings against a social media user who allegedly made an offensive comment about Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on his Facebook page.
Freedom House deplored the development in a statement issued on Tuesday. The Washington-based watchdog urged the Armenian authorities to stop enforcing “this unconstitutional legislation” which it said indicates a “clear degradation of democratic norms in Armenia, including freedom of expression.”
Vahagn Hovakimian, a parliament deputy from Pashinian’s Civil Contract party and one of the authors of the legislation, denied such a regression in the country. He said that Pashinian’s political team criminalized grave insults, rather than defamation.
“I am saddened to see inaccurate things in the Freedom House appeal because the international organization was misled in this particular case,” the former journalist told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Another pro-government lawmaker, Zaruhi Batoyan, also defended the controversial amendments. She said they are needed to tackle widespread verbal abuse circulated on Armenian social media accounts.
“Maybe this should be a temporary solution, but it is necessary at this point and our social life testifies to that,” said the former labor minister and civic activist.
By contrast, Artsvik Minasian, a parliamentary leader of the main opposition Hayastan alliance, echoed the Freedom House criticism.
“This law cannot contribute to Armenia’s democratic development,” said Minasian. “On the contrary, it will help Armenia regress in the objective rankings of all human rights organizations.”
Hayastan and other opposition groups claim that Pashinian himself has relied heavily on slander and “hate speech” since coming to power in 2018.
All forms of slander and defamation had been decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during then President Serzh Sarkisian’s rule.