YEREVAN, February 15. /ARКА/. А controversial bill that calls for a fivefold increase in maximum legal fines set for defamation, passed last week by Armenia’s parliament in the first reading has sparked serious concerns of local journalistic organizations, Ashot Melikyan, the chairman of the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, said during an online discussion on Monday.
The bill approved by a vote of 72 to 30 and 2 abstentions raises the amount of fines for insult and slander to 5 million and 10 million drams ($19,200), respectively.
According to Melikyan, a fine of this amount imposed on a mass media outlet would simply ruin it. Under current law, passed back in 2010, the fine for insult and slander are set at one and two million drams, respectively.
The current bill was drafted in 2020 by Deputy Parliament Speaker Alen Simonyan from the ruling majority My Step bloc, who argues that its adoption is important in terms of protecting the honor and dignity of a person from slander and insults, and will also allow citizens to receive more reliable information.
The pro-government lawmakers also claim that dissemination of information from “sources of unknown origin” could endanger the country’s national security.
According to Ashot Melikyan, by and large, the meaning of the changes proposed by Simonyan lies in the fact that if there is defamation, then the information should be clarified and corrected, and if it is an insult, then those behind it should apologize.
“It is not uncommon for government officials or public persons to perceive objective criticism as insult and slander and take the cases to court. And since the judicial system is far from being independent, and now it is also in a crisis, judges may make very controversial decisions, which can really become a bludgeon for the media,” Melikyan said.
Melikyan said also that over the past 10 years the judges hearing defamation cases would usually rule to impose the minimum fine, in particular, instead of the requested 1 million, the court rules that the plaintiff be awarded only 200 thousand drams and ‘therefore, there is no point in increasing the fines.’ Also, according to him, it is not clear what are the grounds for raising the fines fivefold. In his opinion, this can be a message for the courts to review their practice and impose higher fines.
“They say that the information field is filled with insults, slander, manipulation, fake news, but the change in the law will not change the situation. Unfortunately, the parliamentary majority has now switched to the policy of adopting repressive bills, instead of looking for solutions, including political ones,” Melikyan said.
At the same time, he noted that insults and slander in the media field are resulting from political struggle. If political parties eliminate insults from their rhetoric, then the situation can quickly calm down, he said.
“If we also had an independent judicial system, democratic traditions and the authorities’ tolerance for criticism, as is the case in developed countries, then it would be possible to toughen or even criminalize these provisions, but in our situation this will lead to great threats. There is no need to justify everything by the current situation, the country will not always be in this situation; you just need to know how to use the laws,” Melikyan said.
According to him, as long as there are no stable democratic traditions in the country, the tightening of the law related to the mass media contains great threats and the authorities must understand that they are not eternal and that someday they can also become opposition and will feel the consequences of these restrictions.
“Having little experience in lawmaking, the authorities draft repressive laws, which are not based on international practice and expert recommendations. I am sure that international organizations will subject these approaches to harsh criticism,” Melikyan said.