If passed, the change to Armenia's civil code will restrict Armenians from hiding behind avatars or fake names when posting comments online. The amendment's proposes to make media responsible for anonymous user commentary on their websites and also to restrict information crossovers from anonymous internet sources into mainstream news. Proponents from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia claim that the initiative is meant to fight the spread of slanderous and offensive information by Internet users with fake profiles, which, it alleges, often mask interest groups.
But reporters, bloggers and media activists say that the amendment is a threat to freedom of expression in Armenia.
“Although the goal given by the parliamentarians is praiseworthy, this bill poses serious dangers to online freedom of information in Armenia,” said Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk in a statement. “The media cannot be held responsible for the content they did not create and online anonymity is one of the founding principles of the Internet as a space for debate and freely reported information."
The bill proposes that a news site that is “available to an unlimited number of users” and that spreads news, regardless of the frequency of content updates, must delete posts identified as slanderous within 12 hours, Regnum reported. It did not identify who makes the call about alleged slander.
Media expert Samvel Martirosian told the news agency that Facebook and its Russian spinoff, Odnoklasniki, can also be interpreted as news sites under this law. “[A social media] user may be held responsible for content shared from a friend’s wall,” Martirosian said.
Bihr also thinks that the bill’s vague wording provides ample opportunity for subjective judicial interpretation. Instead of downright restrictions, Bihr suggested that the Armenian government encourage "self-regulation" by media.
The bill recollects similar initiatives in longtime Armenian foes Turkey and Azerbaijan; both routinely denounced for their alleged lack of democracy.
As in those countries, the fact that Armenia is not known for its independent courts and media adds to fears that the bill can become a tool for the government to muzzle online dissent. For over a decade, Armenia has scored as a “not free” country in Freedom House’s annual press freedom charts.