An international media watchdog on Sunday expressed concern about an upsurge in libel suits against Armenian newspapers critical of the government, calling it a serious threat to press freedom in the country.
“Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about all the libel actions being brought against Armenian newspapers and the disproportionate damages being demanded, which threaten their survival and create a climate that encourages self-censorship,” the Paris-based group said in a statement. “This tendency to use lawsuits to throttle news media must be reined in.”
Twelve such lawsuits have been filed this year alone. The surge in their number is widely attributed to controversial amendments to Armenian media legislation that were enacted in April 2010. They decriminalized libel but significantly toughened financial penalties for news reports and commentaries deemed defamatory by local courts.
“In most cases, the courts seem to do what the plaintiffs want, imposing the maximum amount of damages,” the RSF said. The watchdog added that it is now closely monitoring several libel cases heard by Yerevan courts.
Two of those cases were brought in recent months by former President Robert Kocharian and members of his family. They are seeking a total of 12 million drams ($32,000) in damages from the pro-opposition “Zhamanak” and “Hraparak” dailies. The case against “Hraparak” stems from a February article that described Kocharian as a “blood-thirsty” individual who is also notorious for his “particularly brilliant foolishness.”
The RSF said that Kocharian may have had “grounds for a libel action.” But it insisted that the former president’s decision to sue the paper is “still dangerous inasmuch as it suggests that the real of goal of defamation suits is to bankrupt independent media.”