Nikol Pashinyan has told senior Armenian officials to sue media outlets “falsely” accusing them of illicit enrichment, saying that such reports have contributed to a drop in Armenia’s position in a global corruption survey.
Together with Romania, Armenia ranked 63th out of 180 countries and territories evaluated in Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released on January 30. It occupied 58th place in the previous CPI released a year ago.
The Berlin-based watchdog said that the downgrade reflects “worrying signs” in the country. Its Armenian branch pointed to “selective” enforcement of laws and regulations, controversial appointments of senior officials as well as growing questions about integrity in public procurement.
Armenian opposition figures seized upon the findings of the survey, saying that it disproved Pashinyan’s earlier claims that he has eliminated “systemic corruption” since coming to power in 2018.
Speaking in the parliament on Wednesday, Pashinyan admitted shortcomings in his government’s stated fight against corruption. He said that Armenian media is also responsible for the country’s downgraded position in the corruption rankings.
“I think that media reports about corrupt deals involving one or another official also played a role,” he said. “I want to propose a formula so that no such report goes unanswered. If it’s not true, then you should opt for a civil lawsuit and be consistent.”
Boris Navasardian, the chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, criticized Pashinyan’s advice.
“With regard to government officials, democratic countries follow a principle whereby they have to be tolerant of critical media reports and not take journalists and media to court,” Navasardian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “I believe that this is what the prime minister should have called for.”
Navasardian said that some corruption-related reports disseminated in the country have been based on “rumors and gossips” because of a lack of government transparency.
“I think that the more transparent the state is, the fewer errors and distortions of reality by media, which we can see in some cases, there will be,” he said.
Pro-opposition and independent media outlets increasingly accuse members of Pashinyan’s entourage of enriching themselves or their cronies, notably by helping companies linked to them win government contracts.
In particular, they have pointed the finger at Alen Simonian, the Armenian parliament speaker and a leading member of the ruling Civil Contract party. A construction company managed by Simonian’s brother won last year at least nine government tenders for the construction of rural roads.
The Armenian government has also signed many lucrative deals with companies linked to other senior officials, including a deputy chief of Pashinyan’s staff. The prime minister insisted in January that these facts do not indicate government corruption.
Critics have also expressed serious concern over an increased number of government decisions not to put contracts for the delivery of goods or services out to competitive tender.
Pashinyan did not comment on his government’s handling of procurements when he discussed on Thursday the latest Transparency International report with ministers and other senior officials attending a cabinet meeting in Yerevan.
“There is no progress, there is regress and that’s a problem in itself,” said the former journalist. “It’s also important to note that this indicator shows the perceptions of people dealing with various state bodies.”