Armenia’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday instructed lower courts to be more cautious in handling libel lawsuits filed against media and generally avoid imposing hefty fines on them.
The ruling could curb a sharp rise in defamation cases that followed the adoption by the Armenian parliament in April 2010 of controversial amendments to media legislation.
The amendments decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences. About 30 libel suits have since been filed by current and former government officials and government-linked businessmen.
Independent media outlets as well as local and international media watchdogs consider this a serious threat to press freedom in the country.
The state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, added his voice to these concerns last month. He asked the Constitutional Court to look into the corresponding article of Armenia’s Civil Code and consider declaring it unconstitutional.
The court upheld the legality of the clause but issued several significant instructions on how it should be enforced by the Armenian judiciary. In particular, it ruled that media outlets cannot be held liable for their “critical assessment of facts” and “evaluation judgments.”
“For the role of the media is greater than merely reporting facts,” the court chairman, Gagik Harutiunian, said, announcing the verdict. “The media is obliged to interpret events and facts in order to inform the society and foster debate on issues important to the society.”
The ruling stressed that broadcasters, newspapers and online news services found guilty of defamation of character must generally be ordered to issue an apology or provide other “non-material compensation” to plaintiffs.
It also said that the amount of libel damages set by Armenian courts should depend on the financial strength of media outlets facing legal action.
“They must take into account the size of the respondent’s income and not impose a disproportionately heavy financial burden on the respondent that would have a decisive negative financial influence on the latter’s activities,” concluded the panel of nine judges.
Virtually all Armenian newspapers would struggle to pay thousands of dollars in damages typically demanded by plaintiffs. One paper, “Haykakan Zhamanak,” had to resort to public fundraising after being fined 6 million drams ($15,800) last February.
Andreasian was satisfied with the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the libel legislation, calling it “sufficiently encouraging.” He expressed confidence that district-level and courts will not be able to ignore the ruling.
“It will have a positive influence even in case of the worst possible judge,” Andreasian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
There was no immediate reaction to the Constitutional Court’s decision from Armenian media associations.