Several dozen journalists and civic activists marched to a court in Yerevan on Wednesday to condemn its handling of a libel suit filed against an independent newspaper by a government-linked businessman.
The businessman, Khachik Khachatrian, sued the “Zhoghovurd” daily on January 10 in connection with a December report that accused a poultry company owned by him of selling eggs that were past their sell-by dates. Khachatrian denied that claim, accusing the paper of damaging his business reputation and demanding 3 million drams ($7,400) in damages.
A district court in Yerevan froze assets of the newspaper and the author of the controversial story worth 3 million drams as it began considering the case later in January. The next court hearing on the libel suit is scheduled for March 22.
Taguhi Tovmasian, the “Zhoghovurd” editor, said that the paper’s continued operations are now at serious risk because court bailiffs can now confiscate its equipment pending a final ruling in the case. She claimed that the Armenian authorities are thus trying to “rein in” a publication critical of them ahead of the February 18 presidential election.
Tovmasian spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) as she demonstrated outside the court building in downtown Yerevan along with dozens of “Zhoghovurd” reporters, journalists from other media outlets and civic activists. “We are demanding justice,” one of the protesters shouted through a megaphone. “We are demanding an end to the pressure on media.”
The small crowd was particularly furious with the court injunction. A “Zhoghovurd” lawyer petitioned the judge in the case, Ruben Apinian, to lift the asset freeze.
Independent and pro-opposition publications faced an upsurge in defamation cases brought by serving and former government officials, pro-government parliamentarians and businessmen following a controversial bill passed by the Armenian parliament in early 2010. The bill decriminalized libel but drastically toughened financial penalties for such offences.
Local press freedom groups reported 30 libel cases in 2010-2011, expressing serious concern over what they regard as a major threat to free speech. The state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, added his voice to those concerns in November 2011, asking Armenia’s Constitutional Court to pass judgment on the matter. The Constitutional Court responded by instructing lower courts to generally avoid imposing hefty fines on media.
The legal action against “Zhoghovurd” is apparently the first major libel case filed since the Constitutional Court’s decision.