President Opposes Government-Backed Law on Hefty Defamation Fines

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President Armen Sarkissian

President Armen Sarkissian

YEREVAN (Azatutyun.am)—President Armen Sarkissian has refused to sign into law a government-backed bill that would triple maximum legal fines set for defamation in Armenia, calling it a threat to the freedom of speech.

He has also asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the measure condemned by Armenian press freedom groups.

The bill involving amendments to the Armenian Civil Code was drafted by a close associate of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonyan, and passed by the National Assembly late last month.

It stipulates that media outlets and individuals convicted of “slander” could be fined as much as 6 million drams ($11,500) while those making offensive claims will face a maximum fine of up to 2 million drams.

Later in March, Armenia’s leading media associations asked Sarkissian not to endorse the bill and to challenge it in the Constitutional Court instead, saying that it could be exploited by government officials and politicians to stifle press freedom. The president met with their representatives shortly afterwards.

In a statement released on Thursday, the presidential press office said Sarkissian shares their concerns. It said that while Sarkissian regards defamation offenses as “unacceptable and condemnable” he believes that the much heavier fines “could cause substantial damage to the freedom of speech and considerably limit journalists’ freedom and media outlets’ ability to … objectively cover the activities of officials and public figures in an unconstrained manner.”

The bill also appears to be “contentious in terms of its constitutionality,” the statement said, adding that the head of state has appealed to the Constitutional Court for that reason.

In what civics groups see as a related development, Armenian prosecutors drafted earlier this year legislation that would make defamation of state officials a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

All forms of libel and defamation were decriminalized in Armenia in 2010 during the rule of former President Serzh Sarkisian. The move was recommended by the Council of Europe.

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