YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—In a move condemned by press freedom groups, Armenian prosecutors have drafted legislation that would make defamation of government, law enforcement and other state officials a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
All forms of defamation were decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during the rule of former President Serzh Sarkisian. The move was recommended by the Council of Europe.
A bill circulated by the Office of the Prosecutor General and posted on a government website on Wednesday says that slander and insults directed at state officials performing their duties have become commonplace and must be criminalized. It says that individuals making slanderous claims through mass media or other public channels must face up to two years’ imprisonment and heavy fines.
Armenia’s leading media organizations expressed serious concern over the bill on Thursday, saying that it could be used by the authorities as a “tool” against legitimate criticism. In a joint statement, they described it as a “logical continuation” of recent legislative measures aimed at restricting press freedom in the country.
The statement pointed to the Armenian parliament’s decision last week to approve a fivefold increase in maximum legal fines set for defamation as well as pro government lawmakers’ separate proposal to make it harder for journalists to use anonymous sources.
“We are expressing our disappointment with the fact that the authorities formed as a result of the 2018 revolution are planning unacceptable restrictions on the freedom of expression,” stated the 11 organizations.
“We do not want at all to defend slanderers and offenders,” they said. “But we find it necessary to remind that representatives of the authorities, officials and public figures must show utmost tolerance towards any criticism.”
The prosecutors’ initiative has been effectively endorsed by the Armenian Ministry of Justice. But it is not yet clear whether Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government will back the proposed criminalization of defamation.
Some lawmakers affiliated with Pashinyan’s My Step bloc said last week that they would hail such a measure.
Daniel Ioannisyan of the Union of Informed Citizens also criticized the prosecutors’ bill on Thursday, saying that it could result in media censorship.
“You will definitely find no European or democratic country that makes it a crime to insult or slander authorities but not [ordinary] citizens,” Ioannisyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
“True, there are countries, including democratic ones, where defamation is a criminal offense … But there is no [democratic] country where insulting authorities is deemed a crime but insulting citizens is not,” he said.
Ioannisyan said the authorities should tackle instead the spread of false information by anonymous or fake social media accounts.