YEREVAN -- The Armenian parliament has adopted amendments to the Civil Code dramatically raising the maximum penalties for defamation and insult offenses -- a move that local media organizations said would “significantly damage” freedom of speech and expression.
A total of 76 lawmakers on March 24 voted in the second and final reading in favor of the bill setting the damages for defamation at up to 6 million drams ($11,400), and for insults at up to 3 million drams.
Forty members of the National Assembly voted against the changes, with three abstentions.
Earlier, the damages for defamation and insult offenses were set at up to 2 million and 1 million drams, respectively.
The amendments passed in the first reading set higher punishments -- up to 10 million drams -- but they were lowered at the suggestion of the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
A number of media organizations in Armenia have called on President Armen Sarkisian not to sign the adopted bill into law, and send it to the Constitutional Court to check its constitutionality.
"This change is extremely dangerous, especially if we take into account the tendency of government officials, politicians, other famous people to perceive even objective criticism as insult and slander and take the matter to court,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
Armenia decriminalized defamation and insults in 2010 following an appeal of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to member states.
Also on March 24, the National Assembly adopted in the second and final reading a package of amendments to the Law On Higher Education and Science.
Among other things, the amendments envisage that five out of nine members of universities’ boards will be appointed by the Education Ministry, a proposal that has raised concerns among universities that this may be a way for the government to reduce their autonomy.
The package was passed by 79 votes to 36, with two abstentions.