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Newspapers threatened by libel suits with sky-high damages awards

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is concerned about all the libel actions being brought against Armenian newspapers and the disproportionate damages being demanded, which threaten their survival and create a climate that encourages self-censorship. This tendency to use lawsuits to throttle news media must be reined in.

The repeal of jail sentences for libel and slander in April 2010 was hailed as a democratic advance but judicial harassment of the media continues. There were 12 defamation actions during the first quarter of 2011 alone. Independent newspapers are the leading targets. The daily "Jamanak" is currently the subject of three different lawsuits. "Haykakan Jamanak" and "Hraparak" are also being sued.

In most cases the plaintiffs are politicians. On 18 April, Armenia's highest appeal court ordered the news website Hetq, founded by the NGO Investigative Journalists, to pay Ijevan mayor Tavush Marz 450,000 drams (820 euros) in damages and publish a retraction. The suit was brought over a series of articles about embezzlement by local officials. Having exhausted all possibilities of appeal in Armenia, the NGO says it will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Former president Robert Kocharian's family are frequent plaintiffs. His wife, Bella Kocharian, and son, Sedrak Kocharian, are suing "Jamanak" for 6 million drams (11,000 euros) over a September 2010 article implicating them in an alleged case of embezzlement. The newspaper "Haykakan Jamanak" has already been ordered to pay Levon Kocharian 3.5 million drams (6,400 euros) in damages.

The former president himself recently sued "Hraparak" over a 2 February article describing him as "bloodthirsty" and subject to "fits of madness." While there may have been grounds for a libel action, there were certainly no grounds for his request for a freeze on the newspaper's assets, which was granted at the first hearing.

The order was rescinded on 11 April, but the former president's action is still dangerous inasmuch as it suggest that the real goal of defamation suits is to bankrupt independent media. The OSCE, to which Armenia belongs, has a clear position on this: "The amount of the fine should not reach the ceiling of bankruptcy of the media outlets or individual journalists, nor should it endanger their normal work."

In most cases, the courts seem to do what the plaintiffs want, imposing the maximum amount of damages. On 7 February, "Haykakan Jamanak" was ordered to pay 2,440,000 drams (nearly 4,500 euros) in damages to each of the three parliamentarians – Ruben Hayrapetyan, Samuel Aleksanyan and Levon Sargsyan – who sued it over a 14 October article quoting a list of Armenian officials and businessmen allegedly involved in criminal activity. Editor Hayk Gevorgyan said he was amazed by the court's verdict and has decided to appeal.

As well as the large amounts in damages demanded by plaintiffs, newspapers must also pay excessive lawyers' fees. The abuses are such that the council of the Armenian Chamber of Lawyers has approved a proposed directive imposing a ceiling of 300,000 drams on fees in defamation cases. It has been submitted to the legal department, which will decide whether it should go into effect.

Reporters Without Borders is following all of these cases closely. As well as those already mentioned, Reporters Without Borders will also attend the upcoming hearings in the parliamentarian Tigran Arzakantsian's lawsuit against the newspaper "Yerkir" and the lawsuit that the company Glendale Hills has brought against "Jamanak".

Reporters Without Borders has urged participants in the forum on media freedom held by the human rights ombudsman in Yerevan to discuss ways to limit defamation suits. Media self-regulation should be developed and, when legal actions are brought, the courts should respect the principle of proportionality when awarding damages.

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