YEREVAN -- Armenia's parliament has given initial approval to a package of amendments that critics fear may be used stifle independent media, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
The amendments, passed in a first reading on March 18, would allow government officials and private persons to demand up to 2 million drams ($5,000) in damages from media outlets for slander.
Critics say the authorities could use the laws to economically strangle media that regularly criticize them.
The chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, Boris Navasardian, said Armenian courts frequently yield to pressure from government prosecutors and would not necessarily adjudicate libel cases fairly.
"The courts are not sufficiently independent and not sufficiently trusted by citizens," Navasardian told RFE/RL.
Navasardian and other media professionals said the legal definitions of libel and insult -- which currently can carry a short prison term -- are too vague in Armenia.
Armen Baghdasarian, deputy editor of the pro-opposition daily "Chorrord ishkhanutyun" (Fourth Estate), claimed government officials can present any critical report as defamatory.
Libel suits against Armenian journalists and media until now have been a rare occurrence.
Edik Baghdasarian, a prominent investigative journalist and editor of the Hetqam news service, likewise construed the amendments as a government effort to "rein in the media."
The controversial amendments were drafted late last year by three legislators representing the political parties composing President Serzh Sarkisian's governing coalition.
The government largely endorsed the amendments in late December. It said the legislation will contribute to the "full-fledged protection of human rights" in Armenia.