Tigran Arzakantsian, the owner of one of Armenia’s largest brandy companies, took the “Yerkir” daily to court over a January 13 article in which it accused him leading a playboy lifestyle, frequently visiting casinos and making “a habit of being beaten up.”
The article also pointed to Arzakantsian’s rare appearances in the Armenian parliament and contained offensive remarks by Hrant Bagratian, an opposition politician and former brandy industry executive. Bagratian was quoted as saying that the businessman “puts Armenia to shame in Russia with his cognac.”
Arzakantsian’s lawyer, Vache Hovsepian, told the court that the “unfounded” claims constitute defamation of character. Hovsepian said his client is seeking 3 million drams ($8,150) in damages for the alleged damage to his reputation.
“I’m sorry, but if someone wrote that you are in the habit of taking a beating, would you like that?” the lawyer asked “Yerkir” representatives.
The paper’s editor, Bagrat Yesayan, rejected the lawsuit as “baseless.” “The words that we used are either quotes from other persons or conclusions stemming from other media reports or his biography,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Every media outlet has the right to do that.”
During the opening hearing, the judge in the case, Ruben Apinian, wondered whether there is any “public interest” in publishing such articles. Yesayan replied that voters have the legitimate right to possess “full information” about their elected representatives.
“If a parliament deputy thinks that visiting a casino is slander, he had better not visit casinos in the first place,” the editor told the judge. “The online media is flooded with such information. He had better think about his behavior and his reputation among voters.”
Arzakantsian, 44, was also beaten up and hospitalized at another Moscow casino in 2006. Reports in the Armenian press said he was attacked after losing as much as $800,000 on a single night and failing to pay up. The businessman denied those reports.
His legal action against “Yerkir” is the latest in a series of libel suits filed against newspapers critical of the Armenian government. One of them, “Haykakan Zhamanak,” was fined 6 million drams ($16,500) last month for a report that implicated several other, more powerful “oligarchs” in criminal activity in Russia.
Another pro-opposition daily, “Zhamanak,” is currently locked in a court battle with former President Robert Kocharian and members of his family. They are seeking 6 million drams in compensatory damages for “Zhamanak” claims that Kocharian owns lucrative businesses in and outside Armenia through his wife and elder son.
Both papers have denounced the libel cases as being part of government attempts to financially strange media outlets not controlled by them.
Armenia’s leading press freedom groups recently expressed serious concern about those suits, linking them with legal amendments enacted by the Armenian authorities last year. Those decriminalized libel but introduced much heavier financial penalties for media outlets found guilty by courts.
“Those changes have mainly benefited political or economic oligarchs, who have started attacking media for publicizing unpalatable facts about their lives,” agreed Yesayan.
“I believe in our justness but I am not confident about our victory. These are different things in our country at the moment,” said the “Yerkir” editor.