A court in Yerevan on Monday ordered a pro-opposition newspaper to pay the family of former President Robert Kocharian 3 million drams ($8,000) in damages for what it called slanderous reports that attributed extensive business interests to his relatives.
In a ruling reflecting an upsurge in libel suits against Armenian media, the court at the same time refused to force the “Zhamanak” daily to pay another 3,000 million drams for legal expenses which the plaintiff claims to have incurred.
The case stems from a series of articles that were published by “Zhamanak” last fall. The paper linked Kocharian’s wife Bella with trade in medicines and claimed that his older son Sedrak owns diamond mines in India. It also accused Sedrak Kocharian of defrauding an Armenian businessman.
The Kocharian family said these reports are untrue and amount to defamation of character as it took “Zhamanak” to court last December. The paper denied that before offering an out-of-court settlement to the family earlier this year. The two sides failed to agree on settlement terms, however.
Nikolay Baghdasarian, a lawyer for “Zhamanak,” denounced the ruling as “political” and said his clients will appeal against it. “This verdict is far from jurisprudence,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Baghdasarian also scoffed at the court’s decision to slap half of the fine sought by the ex-president’s family. “If the plaintiffs were right, they should have also been compensated for their expenses,” he said.
Kocharian lawyers refused to comment on the verdict as they left the courtroom.
The ex-president, who governed Armenia from 1998-2008, is also locked in a court battle with another newspaper highly critical of his legacy, “Hraparak.” He took the independent daily to court and demanded 6 million drams in damages in February after it labeled him as a “blood-thirsty” individual who is also notorious for his “particularly brilliant foolishness.”
The number of libel cases against media outlets critical of the current and previous Armenian governments has increased significantly since the passage of controversial amendments to Armenian defamation legislation in April 2010. Those amendments decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.
Armenian press freedom groups recorded 12 such cases in the first quarter of this year alone, describing this phenomenon as a serious threat to press freedom. Their concerns have been echoed by Western watchdogs such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.