Armenian police officers guard the parliament building in Yerevan on November 10, 2020. Press freedom advocates in the country warn that recent legislative changes could harm journalists' ability to report. (AFP/Karen Minasyan)

As Armenia legislates libel and insult, journalists worry ‘selective justice’ will be used against the press

When Armenia’s government took office after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, it seemed to usher in a new era of press freedom for the former Soviet Republic. But local journalists fear those days could be over as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government implements new legal amendments on insult and defamation.

Under the amendments to the country’s civil code, signed into law last October 11, persons found guilty of insulting and defaming another person will now be fined triple the previous penalty — up to three million Armenian drams (US$6,300) and six million drams (US$12,600) respectively, according to news reports

The changes to the civil code come after the July 30 introduction of criminal charges for “grave insult,” in which those found guilty of repeatedly “cursing or insulting a person’s dignity in another extremely obscene way” can face up to three months in prison or fines of up to three million drams (US$6,300). Fines for first offenses against government officials and public figures are higher than fines for first offenses against private individuals.

Members of parliament with Pashinyan’s ruling Civil Contract party have defended the measures as necessary to combat disinformation and abusive language online. But press freedom advocates told CPJ they fear the new laws will be used as a tool to clamp down on critical outlets and will lead to self-censorship, especially as lawsuits against the press have sharply increased in number in recent years, according to a study by local press freedom group the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression.

CPJ emailed the parliament and the press secretary of the Armenian prime minister for comment, but did not receive any replies.

Boris Navasardian, president of Yerevan Press Club, an independent local journalists’ association, told CPJ by telephone that the amendments pose a threat to journalists critical of authorities. The measures are a “transparent attempt to abuse selective justice against journalists and media that are oppositionally minded towards the government,” Navasardian said.

When Pashinyan, himself a former journalist, took power in 2018 after igniting a nonviolent pro-democracy movement known as the “Velvet Revolution,” journalists looked forward to a freer media environment and long overdue reforms. Unlike his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, Pashinyan has avoided directly interfering in news coverage and media diversity has increased.

Yet hoped-for reforms – above all in the areas of access to official information and television market liberalization – have failed to materialize. Since coming to power, Pashinyan’s government has had a confrontational relationship with the press, much of which is still owned by individuals close to the former regime, and has shown itself to be increasingly sensitive to criticism following Armenia’s defeat in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In August, the parliament banned journalists from entering the legislative chamber without advance permission and limited media interviews of legislators to a designated area only. The authorities also forcefully removed journalists from the parliamentary press room to stop them recording brawls that occurred in parliament on August 24 and 25.

The new legal changes did not pass without debate. The law tripling penalties for insult and defamation was originally adopted by parliament on March 24, but following discussions with journalistic organizations, President Armen Sarkissian referred it to the Constitutional Court to check its constitutionality. On October 5, the court ruled in favor of the bill.

Ashot Melikyan, chairman of Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, told CPJ by telephone that the new maximum fines entail a real risk of financial collapse for many outlets in Armenia and are likely to lead to increased self-censorship among journalists. The fines are reportedly 30 times the normal monthly salary of an Armenian journalist.

Before he was a politician, Pashinyan himself was on the receiving end of such fines. In 1999, when he was chief editor of the newspaper Oragir, then interior minister Serzh Sargsyan sued the paper for slander. 

“The lawsuit resulted in a six-million-dram fine and since they weren’t able to pay it, the newspaper went bankrupt,” Shushan Doydoyan, the head of local NGO Freedom of Information Center, told Eurasianet. “Now they are doing the same thing that was done against them.”

An explanatory note on a draft version of the amendments includes reference to an existing civil code provision to prevent media outlets found guilty of defamation or insult from being fined an amount that would “impede the normal operation of the media outlet,” the note said. Yet both Melikyan and Navasardian expressed concern that courts are not sufficiently independent of the government to guarantee against devastating fines.

On the criminalization of grave insult both Melikyan and Navasardian voiced concern that “grave insult” is not clearly defined and can potentially be used against media outlets. Navasardian said that the inclusion of private individuals as potential complainants is “a trick to cover the real intention to protect [Pashinyan] and his close team members.”

Ruling party MPs originally proposed a third bill banning media outlets from citing anonymous sources, but after criticism from media organizations and the Council of Europe, the human rights body of the European Union, they revised it to make outlets legally responsible for statements published from “unidentified sources,” Melikyan said. The measure is widely thought to be directed against anonymous Telegram channels whose sometimes dubious claims are often reprinted by traditional media, according to news reports.

Melikyan told CPJ that problems of media polarization and disinformation have been acute since the late 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, with opposition outlets linked to the previous regime pushing the boundaries of legitimate journalism. But he said that the “repressive” measures taken by the government are not the way forward. He advocates promoting media self-regulation – through initiatives such as the independent Armenian Media Ethics Observatory and its code of ethics, signed by dozens of media outlets – as well as fact-checking projects and efforts to raise media literacy.

Navasardian agrees, arguing that the government’s moves are only likely to exacerbate media polarization. “When you have such a transparent intention to implement selective justice,” he says, “you will never have a civilized system of media regulation.”