YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Some 50 journalists and human rights activists with black ribbons tied round their mouths tied marched on Friday to the presidential palace in Yerevan to silently protest against a one-year prison term handed to a newspaper editor. The protesters carried slogans warning of what they believe is a threat to the freedom of speech in Armenia.
The demonstration was in support of Nikol Pashinian–the editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition daily "Oragir," whom a Yerevan court found on Tuesday guilty of slander and refusal to obey an earlier court ruling. Pashinian whose paper has been at odds with National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian has described the verdict as unfair and politically motivated.
"Oragir," which was forced to shut down in June after losing a libel suit brought by Sarkisian but restarted publication last month under a new name–has also been highly critical of President Robert Kocharian. Meeting with representatives of the protesters on Friday–Kocharian refused to condemn the verdict and said Pashinian should avoid imprisonment only if a higher court decides so. He suggested that the embattled editor could formally apologize to persons–including the national security minister–who sued him and his paper. Confronted with an argument that a journalist should not go to jail even for a proven defamation of character–Kocharian pointed to the need to "protect the individual’s dignity."
The verdict against Pashinian will take effect on September 15 unless it is changed or overruled by a higher court. Pashinian has said he considers going to jail as a mark of protest.
Meanwhile–the political party of parliament speaker Karen Demirchian–has joined the wave of criticism of the controversial court ruling. Armen Khachatrian–a senior member of the People’s Party of Armenia–told RFE/RL on Friday: "We deeply respect the law and the court–but when it comes to restricting or suppressing a journalist’s freedom of expression we think that such rulings are disproportionately strict." He warned that the criminal proceedings against Pashinian damage Armenia’s image abroad at a time when it prepares to become a full member of the Council of Europe.