By Gayane Abrahamyan
With less than two weeks to go until Armenia’s parliamentary vote, election observers are becoming an issue. Rights activists are voicing worries that a change to the Armenian election code could leave observers potentially vulnerable to defamation suits over statements made about the polling and vote-counting processes.
Fifteen observer organizations with a total of 12,778 observers have been registered to monitor the May 6 election, the first national poll since the disputed 2008 presidential vote, an event that was marred by the deaths of 10 people in post-election violence.
The changes made to the election code in 2011 were supposed to address inadequacies with the presidential vote three years earlier. One electoral code amendment involved the removal of Chapter 6, Article 30, Section 6, which stated: “Observers and representatives of mass media shall not be prosecuted for their opinions about the course of the elections or the summarization of their results.”
Without that provision in the election code, observers who have information that might displease authorities may “simply be silenced,” said Harutiun Hambardzumian, head of The Choice is Yours, Armenia’s largest election observer group, which is deploying 4,000 monitors to watch the polls.
“Before, it was possible for observers to give testimony at police stations about election violations, which … is not a pleasant task in Armenia, [and] I was able to at least encourage my observers by showing them that article and telling them to honestly report what they had witnessed because they were immune from prosecution,” Hambardzumian said. Now, lacking such protection, observers are more likely to be guarded in reporting potential violations.
Opposition leader Vahan Hovhannisian, head of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s parliamentary faction, expressed concern that reticence on the part of domestic observers could distort the overall picture that the outside world receives about the voting, since local monitors, given their familiarity with the language and the culture, “can observe more” than their international counterparts.
Representatives of the governing Republican Party of Armenia insist that observers will be able to express their opinions freely. One Republican Party MP who worked on the election code amendments maintained that concerns about a chilling effect were “absolutely ungrounded.”
“The provision was removed because it had lost its point with the decriminalization of … defamation two years ago,” asserted David Harutiunian, chair of parliament’s Standing Committee on State-Legal Affairs. “Naturally, nobody can be prosecuted for an opinion, and that goes not only for observers, but for everyone.”
The decriminalization of defamation cannot shield a monitor from potential retribution, asserted attorney Lusine Stepanian, a former election observer who decided not to monitor the vote this year. Without explicit safeguards in place, observers may be vulnerable to civil suits that could result in hefty fines. “It doesn’t matter whether . . . slander has been decriminalized or not,” she argued. “If the election code doesn’t say that an observer is not legally liable for his or her opinion, it means that he or she can be” embroiled in a suit.
One local civil liberties watchdog, the Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech, reports that in 2011, the year defamation was decriminalized, roughly 35 civil suits were filed involving charges of slander and insult, involving damage claims totalling up to 6 million drams (more than $15,000). “I agree that decriminalization [of defamation] seemed a step forward, but it turned out to be a disaster for news outlets,” commented Committee Chairperson Ashot Melikian. “I can’t exclude that it might become the same for observers as well.”
The overwhelming majority of observers covering the May parliamentary vote are locals. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights plans to deploy 250 observers, while the Commonwealth of Independent States mission is expected to have about 100 observers on the ground.
OSCE/ODIHR spokesperson Giuseppe Milazzo told EurasiaNet.org that the OSCE has “concerns” about what the amended election code will mean for local observers, but will refrain from giving an opinion until after the publication of the organization’s second interim report on April 27.
Two other amendments also have stirred local worries, though on a lesser scale.
The first requires observers to pass an exam and receive a Central Election Commission certificate to act as an official observer. The second change allows the CEC to revoke a group’s observer mandate “if any observer supports a candidate or party.” Previously, the stipulation applied to the group as a whole. Local monitors fear that the latter amendment could be used to revoke the mandate of any outspoken observer group.
With an eye to the international outcry over the 2008 election violence, the government, for its part, insists that it will do its utmost to guarantee that the May 6 vote is free and fair. Two members of the governing coalition, the Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia, have agreed with the opposition Armenian National Congress and Armenian Revolutionary Federation to run an “intra-party headquarters” for monitoring the elections.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.