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Armenian Editors Want Libel Law Repealed

Ombudsman Karen Andreasian has expressed serious concern about how courts are enforcing the new law.
Ombudsman Karen Andreasian has expressed serious concern about how courts are enforcing the new law.
YEREVAN -- The editors of eight leading Armenian newspapers have expressed support for the Constitutional Court to repeal controversial legislation that has led to a sharp increase in libel suits filed against media outlets, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

State human rights ombudsman Karen Andreasian asked the court last week to examine the corresponding articles of Armenia's Civil Code and consider declaring them unconstitutional.

He expressed serious concern about how Armenian courts are enforcing them.

Amendments to those articles enacted last year decriminalized libel, but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offenses.

At least 15 libel suits have since been filed by current and former government officials, including former President Robert Kocharian and businessmen with government connections.

In a joint statement on October 19, the newspaper editors urged the Constitutional Court to at least suspend those clauses pending consideration of Andreasian's request.

They said the authorities had used the changes with the sole aim of strangling the independent media financially or introducing self-censorship among journalists.

Bagrat Yesayan, editor of the daily "Yerkir" and one of the signatories to the statement, told RFE/RL that press freedom in Armenia was under serious threat.

"There is a danger that in the very near future we will have a situation where print media outlets, unable to comply with court decisions and pay heavy libel damages, will have to shut down. In that case the print media landscape will simply disappear in this country," Yesayan said.

Ashot Melikian of the NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech welcomed the appeals to the country's highest judicial body. But he suggested that the legal provisions, no matter how unfair they seem, can hardly be deemed unconstitutional.

"It's just that there are unclear clauses there that can be interpreted in a subjective way," Melikian told RFE/RL.

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