The editors of some of Armenia’s leading newspapers downplayed on Wednesday the significance of a Constitutional Court decision meant to limit a wave of libel lawsuits filed against local media.
The court ruled on Tuesday that media outlets cannot be held liable for their “critical assessment of facts” and must generally be ordered to provide “non-material compensation” if they are found guilty of defamation of character. It also said Armenian courts should avoid slapping “disproportionately heavy” fines on them.
The Constitutional Court at the same time refused to declare unconstitutional an article of the Armenian Civil Code that allows such penalties. The passage of that article by parliament last year led to a sharp increase in libel cases.
Aram Abrahamian, editor of the “Aravot” daily, said defamation suits will continue to threaten press freedom in the country as long as the controversial clause remains in force. He said he is therefore not satisfied with the court ruling that came in response to an appeal from Karen Andreasian, the state human rights ombudsman.
“In one of my interviews I said that the recognition of the Armenian genocide by [Turkish President] Abdullah Gul is more likely than a Constitutional Court decision in journalists’ favor … Unfortunately I was proven right,” Abrahamian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Armine Ohanian, editor of the “Hraparak” daily, was also skeptical, saying that the Constitutional Court issued mere “recommendations” that can be ignored by lower-level judges. “In that sense I have serious concerns that this decision will only prove to be a nice wish and remain on paper,” she said.
“Hraparak,” which is generally critical of the Armenian government, has fought at least five libel suits over the past year. One of them was brought by former President Robert Kocharian. He is seeking 6 million drams ($15,800) in damages for a February article that labeled him as a “blood-thirsty” person.
The paper was also taken to court earlier this month for offensive comments about a lawyer that were posted on its website by anonymous readers. The lawyer, Artur Grigorian, is demanding as much as 18 million drams in damages.
Unlike many newspaper editors, media associations believe that the Civil Code clause does not violate the Armenian constitution and must simply be modified or properly enforced by courts.
Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Freedom of Information Center, called Tuesday’s court ruling “an important but insufficient step.” “It doesn’t solve the problem because right from the beginning the ombudsman should have appealed to the National Assembly, rather the Constitutional Court,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.