Comment is free?: Armenian newspaper sued over online readers’ opinion

Comment is free?: Armenian newspaper sued over online readers’ opinion

An Armenian newspaper’s property has been put under arrest in a litigation with a professional lawyer over allegedly insulting and reputation-damaging comments left by several readers to an article on the periodical’s online version.

In Armenia this is an unprecedented libel case by its nature. It is also unparalleled by the amount of the damage claim presented by the suing lawyer, Artur Grigoryan. For each of the six comments he demands that Hraparak pay the maximum compensation set by law – 3 million drams (about $7,800), making it a total of 18 million drams (about $47,000).

(Hraparak is a tabloid known for its articles critical of government officials and businessmen. It has a daily circulation of 3,200 hard copies and also operates an online version available in Armenian).

The lawyer sued the paper over comments left under an article headlined “Citizens Fall Victim To Unscrupulous Lawyers?”. The article tells the stories of two women who have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and who insist that lawyer Artur Grigoryan cheated them. The European Court considered the case unacceptable, and the women, who learned about it after calling to the European Court, maintain that Grigoryan had been aware of this and on purpose did not inform them about it, while charging 150,000 drams (about $390) for his services. The authors of the six comments left online make accusations or insults against the lawyer.

On Tuesday, a court in Yerevan made a decision to seize the bank accounts of Hraparak in the amount of 18 million drams corresponding to the size of the damage claim. But after Hraparak editor Armine Ohanyan made a petition to the effect that the step would disrupt the normal work of the paper, the judge of Yerevan’s Kentron and Nor-Nork Court of general jurisdiction changed the decision, seizing the newspaper’s property instead.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service lawyer Grigoryan said that media that instead of doing their job properly only make slanderous reports should not exist in democratic societies.

Editor Ohanyan, for her part, called it a step against press freedom, adding that the newspaper is not responsible for the opinions expressed by its readers. She explained that removing comments left by readers on the website would have constituted a violation on their part of the people’s right to self-expression.

The lawyer who sues Hraparak makes reference to a Civil Code article, which essentially makes a media outlet responsible for paying compensation on damages when it is impossible to identify the author of the libelous statement through this medium.

The paper’s comments section does require that readers give their names and email address, though does not require verification. More often than not readers leave comments under made-up names or non-existing emails.
Libel suits against media have been growing in number lately. Eleven new cases have been brought against media in Armenia in the past quarter alone. Meanwhile, Ombudsman Karen Andreasyan, one of the authors of Armenia’s law on defamation and insult, has turned to the Constitutional Court asking it to determine the constitutionality of the Civil Code article in question (10871). The case will be heard on November 15.

The issue of libel suits against media in Armenia has also given rise to different commentaries that try to measure the degree of their meeting democratic practice.

Commenting on the latest case with Hraparak, the Aravot daily’s chief editor writes: “Now imagine that I am insulted on Facebook. Should I sue Mark Zuckerberg (the co-creator of the social networking site)? You will say that Facebook is not a medium. But are comments left on the paper’s website a medium?”