YEREVAN — Armenian media freedom groups expressed concern on Thursday about a government bill that would make it a crime to publicly call for or justify violence in the country.

Under the bill involving amendments to the Armenian Criminal Code drafted by the Justice Ministry, such statements would be punishable by fines and up to three years in prison. The ministry called for a public debate on the proposed amendments when it publicized them last week.

In their written objections submitted to the ministry, civic groups dealing with mass media said the bill is too vague and could place unjustified restrictions on the freedom of expression.

Shushan Doydoyan, who leads one of those organizations, the Center for Freedom of Information, said the Justice Ministry should have specifically defined and criminalized instead “hate speech” targeting ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and other categories of the population.

“Criminal liability is a very exceptional restriction of the right to freely express oneself and it must therefore be applied only in exceptional circumstances,” Doydoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “In our view, the exceptional circumstances are only hate speech against which the state can take action. But that intervention must have clearly defined grounds.”

Yeghishe Kirakosyan, a senior legal aide to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, insisted earlier that the bill is aimed at doing just that. “This bill is aimed at preventing hate speech and any propaganda of violence,” he said.

The bill appears to stem from angry remarks made by Pashinyan at a June 6 cabinet meeting in Yerevan. The prime minister ordered law-enforcement authorities to clamp down on groups which he said are advocating political violence as part of a “hybrid war” waged against his government.

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