Armine Ohanian, the editor-in-chief of the “Hraparak” daily, said a court in Yerevan notified her of the suit and its decision, dated March 28, to freeze the newspaper’s bank accounts and other assets pending a verdict on the case.
Kocharian is seeking 6 million drams ($16,200) in damages for a February 12 article which the ex-president claims insulted his “dignity and honor.” A lawyer representing him promised to elaborate on his claims on Tuesday.
Court hearings on the case are scheduled to start on May 10.
The op-ed-style article in question looked into implications of an extraordinary statement in which Kocharian hit out President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). It claimed that Sarkisian is “destroying” his predecessor.
Ohanian insisted that the “Hraparak” journalist who wrote it simply exercised his constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression. “This was an analytical article presenting the author’s opinions and attitudes,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “It contains no facts or information that can be subject to retraction.”
“This is an attempt to suspend the newspaper’s activities,” Ohanian charged. “If our bank accounts are under arrest, I may be unable to pay the printing company and no payments could be made to me. This is a catastrophic situation.”
The editor was confident that “Hraparak” will be able to continue to publish for at least several more days. “We will try to figure out how to get out of this situation in the meantime,” she said. “There will definitely be legal solutions.”
Ohanian went on to accuse Kocharian of “declaring a war on the print media.” “Perhaps his goal is not so much to shut down our newspaper as to muzzle all those who criticize him,” she said.
The legal action comes as another Yerevan judge is expected to rule soon on Kocharian’s and his family’s libel suit against the pro-opposition “Zhamanak” daily. They are seeking 6 million drams in damages for a September 2010 article that implicated the ex-president’s wife Bella and elder son Sedrak in large-scale business activities.
The paper offered an out-of-court settlement to the Kocharian family earlier this year. However, the two sides have failed to agree on settlement terms.
Kocharian’s second son Levon won in 2009 a court battle with another opposition daily, “Haykakan Zhamanak,” which accused him of involvement in a drunken brawl in the United Arab Emirates. A Yerevan court found the accusation baseless and fined the paper 3.6 million drams.
Both “Zhamanak” and “Haykakan Zhamanak” accused Kocharian, who governed Armenia from 1998-2008, as well as Armenia’s current leadership of seeking to strangle their publications financially.
Armenia’s leading media associations gave weight to these allegations last month by expressing serious concern about a recent series of libel suits against these and other newspapers critical of the government.
They linked these cases with controversial legal amendments enacted by the Armenian authorities last year. Those decriminalized libel but introduced much heavier financial penalties for media outlets found guilty of defamation.