The bill involving amendments to the Armenian Civil Code was drafted by a close associate of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and passed by the National Assembly in March. It stipulates that media outlets and individuals convicted of “slander” could be fined as much as 6 million drams ($12,450) while those making offensive claims will face a maximum fine of up to 2 million drams.
President Armen Sarkissian refused to sign the bill into law in April, saying he shares concerns that it could be exploited by government officials and politicians to stifle press freedom. Sarkissian also suggested that the bill is “contentious in terms of its constitutionality ” and asked the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on that.
In its verdict publicized at the weekend, the court ruled that the amendments do not run counter to the Armenian constitution.
Armenia’s leading media associations expressed outrage at that conclusion in a joint statement issued on Monday. They argued that it contradicts a Constitutional Court ruling on the issue handed down in 2011 and accused the court of ignoring Council of Europe recommendations and precedent-setting decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.
The statement signed by 11 organizations also says: “Application of the disproportionately strict measures would cause more damage than contribute to the struggle against vices. Especially given that both politicians and officials and representatives of various strata of the population often perceive criticism directed at them as a defamation or insult and go to court. This could create serious obstacles to unfettered activities of the media.”
The main author of the controversial bill, parliament speaker Alen Simonian, earlier rejected such criticism echoed by Western watchdogs such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.
The Armenian media groups linked the heavier fines for defamation to what they described as other curbs on news reporting imposed by the country’s current leadership. Their statement points to recently enacted bills that banned media outlets from citing social media accounts belonging to unknown individuals and made it a crime to gravely insult state officials.
The Armenian authorities’ decision to criminalize slander and defamation was strongly criticized by Freedom House late last month. The Washington-based group said it testifies to a “clear degradation of democratic norms in Armenia, including freedom of expression.”