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.