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Armenian Editors Skeptical About Court Ruling On Libel

"Hraparak" daily editor Armine Ohanian
"Hraparak" daily editor Armine Ohanian
YEREVAN -- The editors of some of Armenia's leading newspapers have downplayed the significance of a Constitutional Court decision meant to limit libel lawsuits against the media, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The court ruled on November 15 that media outlets cannot be held liable for their "critical assessment of facts" and must generally be ordered to provide "nonmaterial compensation" if they are found guilty of defamation of character. It also said courts should avoid slapping "disproportionately heavy" fines on the media.

But the Constitutional Court also refused to declare unconstitutional an article of Armenia's 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 daily "Aravot," said on November 16 that defamation suits will continue to threaten press freedom in Armenia as long as the controversial clause is in force. He said he is 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.

Armine Ohanian, editor of the daily "Hraparak," 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 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 "bloodthirsty."

The paper was also taken to court earlier this month for offensive comments about lawyer Artur Grigorian that were posted on its website by anonymous
readers. Grigorian is demanding as much as 18 million drams in damages.

Unlike many newspaper editors, media associations believe 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 the court ruling on November 15 "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 than the Constitutional
Court," she told RFE/RL.

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