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."
Armenia and Georgia, neighbors that compete over just about anything, from cuisine to culture, now seem to be going head to head over press freedom. Key media-freedom watchdogs seem to diverge about which of the two countries should take the lead in the South Caucasus.
For years, Georgia has carried the torch for media freedom in the region, a place that is hardly a bulwark of independent or high-quality media to begin with. But, according to the latest press freedom charts by the Paris-based Reporters without Borders, Armenia has taken over the baton.
The country was placed 77th in a ranking of 179 countries, 33 notches above Georgia, and way ahead of neighbors Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran.
Reporters without Borders wrote that both Armenia and Georgia “enjoy broad media pluralism and a low level of state censorship, but they still face important challenges concerning media independence and the working environment of journalists" who are "often treated as easy prey by a variety of pressure groups."
Journalists, who are or have been in Azerbaijani prisons, would beg to differ. With a long record of repressing free media, Azerbaijan hit a new low recently with a character assassination campaign against investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who works for both EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL.
In its Worldwide Threat Assessment report, Microsoft, though, did not echo that finding. Armenia did not fall into its top-ten list, although Armenia's rival, Turkey, ranked in the number-ten spot. The US led the list.
But, earlier on, Armenia also appeared as an outstanding achiever on a related ranking compiled by AVG Technologies, an American anti-virus software manufacturer. The company named Armenia as the third most dangerous place to log onto the Internet, after Turkey and Russia. On this list, Armenia is followed by neighbor and sworn enemy Azerbaijan.
Just in time for the 2012 parliamentary elections, Armenia's Constitutional Court has instructed lower courts to make defamation compensation proportional to the size of media companies’ wallets.
The November 15 ruling, the response to a case brought by Ombudsman Karen Andreasian and eight local newspapers, can make life easier for the Armenian news industry, which has faced a rise in libel suits and hefty fines that media observers link to 2010 amendments of media laws, which decriminalized slander, but also toughened the penalties for libel.
That has meant a serious problem for some print outlets with a penchant for government criticism. Armenian newspapers, mostly shoestring operations, have struggled to pay thousands of dollars in damages. One even asked its readers to help foot the bill, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.
But the Constitutional Court's ruling does not mean that Armenian media is now off the hook. Ombudsman Karen Andreasian welcomed the ruling, but also said that the legislation is too ambiguous on the matter of slander, leaving too much room for broad interpretations in the plaintiff’s favor.
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