In a November 10 letter to Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, expressed concern over the growing number of libel suits filed against Armenia’s news outlets, and called upon the authorities to further reform the legislation to adequately protect the media in civil defamation cases.
“I welcomed decriminalization of defamation in Armenia in May 2010 as a significant step toward ensuring a media-friendly environment. Regretfully since then, almost 30 civil defamation lawsuits have been brought against newspapers, including 11 this year,” Mijatović said, according to the OSCE’s official website. “In most cases, the compensation sought is out of proportion to the damage allegedly inflicted.”
Mijatović stressed that compensation awarded in civil libel lawsuits should be proportional to actual damages and should not lead to the closure of a news outlet, which would “result in limiting press freedom”.
Among others, Mijatović was referring to a lawsuit filed against the Hraparak newspaper by a lawyer seeking more than €34,000 (about $46,400) in damages for allegedly slanderous readers’ comments posted on the periodical’s website. A court in Yerevan on 8 November ordered that the newspaper’s property be seized pending a decision on the case.
In her letter to Minister Nalbandian, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media said her Office is ready to assist Armenia in further reforming its media legislation and promoting freedom of the media. As an example, she referred to a training seminar organized in Yerevan on 1 November by the OSCE, to help familiarize Armenian judges with international best practices in defamation cases.
“I hope this initiative will help contain the wave of libel suits filed against Armenian media,” Mijatović underlined.
Head of the Alternative Information Resources project Manana Aslamazian thinks that the decriminalization of defamation and libel is commendable and every professional newspaper must be ready to defend itself in court against libel lawsuits. “It is another question that, unfortunately, the damages that citizens demand that newspapers pay are set very high. As a matter of fact, it forces newspapers to close down, but, on the other hand, very often these claims are just. In other words, the level of journalism is not so high for an absolute defense of newspapers,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).
Aslamazian welcomed the initiative of Armenia’s Ombudsman Karen Andreasian to question the constitutionality of some of the provisions concerning defamation and insult at the Constitutional Court.
She believes the Court should first of all lower the size of damages that the claimant is eligible to file. “I would be happy if the Constitutional Court included several points in its verdict. In particular, that people have the freedom of information. The Constitutional Court should also specify who a public character is and how tolerant he or she should be toward criticism. If these points are addressed in the Constitutional Court ruling, then I think we could consider that this painful period the Armenian media community is going through will improve a little,” Aslamazian said.
The expert added that, unfortunately, the issue is being much politicized in the pre-election period in Armenia. “It is clear that there are two tendencies before elections. On the one hand, pressure is high, because they want to win in elections and many populist promises are being made. But if on this wave of populism the Constitutional Court arrives at a mild decision, I think that after the elections everything will fall in its place, and court decisions will be more efficient,” concluded Aslamazian.