An Armenian pro-opposition newspaper locked in a court battle with former President Robert Kocharian on Friday defended itself against another libel suit filed by a controversial construction company.
The company, Glendale Hills, is seeking 2 million drams ($5,360) in damages from the “Zhamanak” daily for an article that blamed it for the collapse of a ceiling at an apartment block in Gyumri.
The accident occurred last August in a Gyumri neighborhood where Glendale Hills has been building, with government funding, new homes for local residents who had been made homeless by the catastrophic 1988 earthquake.
“The ceiling came down,” Anzhik Melikian, one of the apartment owners, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service at the time. “My husband is disabled. So I rushed to get him out of the bed.” “I saw a second earthquake,” she said.
As a Yerevan court opened hearings on the case Glendale Hills lawyers claimed that the newspaper unfairly damaged the company’s reputation with its coverage of the ceiling collapse. One of the attorneys, Anahit Sardarian, showed the court what she called a letter from Gyumri residents praising Glendale Hills. She also cited positive coverage of the Gyumri reconstruction by other newspapers.
“Zhamanak” representatives rejected the defamation claims. Arman Babajanian, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, argued that President Serzh Sarkisian has repeatedly criticized the quality of the work done by Glendale Hills. He said Sarkisian slammed “significant shortcomings” in the construction shortly after the August accident.
“In effect, Glendale Hills representatives are trying to deny Serzh Sarkisian’s statements which we have presented in our defense,” Babajanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“We have asked prosecutors to determine the veracity of Serzh Sarkisian’s statements,” he said, adding that his lawyers may also ask the court to call up the president as a witness.
“Zhamanak” was already taken to court last December for an article that claimed Kocharian’s wife Bella and older son Sedrak are engaged in large-scale business activities. The Kocharian family is seeking 6 million drams in libel damages for what it calls defamatory claims. The paper strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Babajanian, who was convicted of draft evasion during Kocharian’s rule and spent more than three years in prison, said these and other court cases are part of a government “attack on opposition media.” He claimed that the Armenian authorities want to muzzle critics ahead of the next national elections.
The number of libel suits filed against media outlets critical of the government has increased significantly since the passage of controversial amendments to Armenian defamation legislation in April 2010. Armenian press freedom groups recorded 12 such cases in the first quarter of this year.