A court in Yerevan has frozen 3 million drams ($8,000) worth of assets belonging to the independent daily “Hraparak” after a libel lawsuit filed against it by the head of a state body overseeing the Armenian judiciary.
The newspaper editor, Armine Ohanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Thursday that the court also banned “Hraparak” from reporting on the litigation pending a verdict in the case.
Ohanian said she has still not received a copy of the suit filed by Misak Martirosian, head of the Judicial Department. She said she believes that it stems from two news stories that the paper published last month.
The stories were about a letter to Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian which “Hraparak” said was sent by a group of Justice Department employees. They were said to have accused Martirosian of corruption and other illegal practices.
“We got a copy of that letter and simply reported on that letter in our newspaper,” said Ohanian.
Ohanian said some of those employees subsequently withdrew their signatures after the police launched a criminal investigation into their allegations. “That’s not our business,” she added. “Let the law-enforcers determine whether or not they signed the letter.”
Ohanian also described as illegal the court ban on any “Hraparak” articles about the case. “In effect, we have been stripped of any possibility of defending ourselves,” she said. “How can they restrict our right to publish articles?
Mesrop Harutiunian of the non-governmental Committee To Protect Freedom Of Speech also denounced the court order in an open letter to Tovmasian published on Thursday. Harutiunian demanded the minister’s personal intervention in what he called a “blatant” violation of press freedom.
“Hraparak” is already locked in a court battle with former President Robert Kocharian. The latter is seeking 6 million drams in libel damages over a “Hraparak” article that 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 governments has increased significantly since the passage of controversial amendments to Armenian defamation legislation in April 2010. The amendments decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.