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 August 29, 2003 

Free Speech Debate: Government official defends jail term for libel

A senior government official expressed on Wednesday his strong opposition to the idea of decriminalizing libel offenses in Armenia which is advocated by local media watchdogs and international organizations.

Mikael Grigoryan, a top aide to the chief of the Armenian Police Service, defended an article of the new criminal code which makes defamation of character a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

The clause has been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as a "serious threat to freedom of expression." In a joint letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasaryan last June, they called for its abolition, saying that libel should regulated by civil, not criminal, law. Baghdasaryan promised to amend the code in line with the European standards, but indicated subsequently that the controversial provision should not necessarily be scrapped.

Grigoryan is one of the main authors of the criminal code, and his remarks made at a media seminar in Yerevan suggest that the Armenian authorities are unlikely to agree to decriminalize libel. Responding to critics' concerns, he said: "The code does not restrict freedom of speech. On the contrary, it provides for the realization of that constitutional right."

A representative of international media watchdog Article 19, Julia Apostle, claimed the opposite, saying that the code is open to government abuse and can be used against journalists critical of the ruling regime.

"If a judge abuses this provision, he can be punished," Grigoryan countered. "Any irresponsible person, whether he is a judge or journalist, must be held accountable for his actions."

The Armenian libel legislation, a holdover from the Soviet era, stipulates that defamation does not have to be malicious and deliberate to be deemed a crime. But no Armenian journalist has so far been sent to jail for their reports.



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