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Liana Sayadyan

Lithuanian Journalist Found Guilty Based on Possible "Conclusions"

Gintaras Visockas, publisher of the Lithuanian newspaper www.slaptai.lt, has to spend 40 days in jail. He can't pay the 33,000 lats (10,000 Euro) in compensation for a slander suit he lost in the courts.

Visockas was found guilty of anything specific he wrote but rather, in the court's view, due to the possible conclusions reached by the average reader. I was fortunate to have met the beleaguered journalist in a media conference recently sponsored by the OSCE in Vilnius.

Visockas, who has been covering military and political issues for the past 25 years, wrote a piece about retired General Ceslovas Jezerskas, a candidate for the Lithuanian presidency in 2009.

In his article, Visockas wrote that the general has been a keen athlete in the Soviet era and that the Lithuanian State Security Committee kept close tabs on all sport groups. He also wrote that the general's wife and daughter had committed suicide.

A Vilnius court, in its decision, wrote that an average reader of the article might get the impression that General Jezerskas was somehow tied into the Lithuanian secret service. It ordered the journalist to pay 23,000 lats to the general for moral damages and 10,000 lats for the plaintiff's incurred court fees.

The compensation portion is to be garnished from the journalist's wages over a period of 1.5 years. But since Visockas cannot pay the court fees, he was sentenced to 40 days in jail.

The journalist wasn't able to file an appeal since the general petitioned the court as a private citizen and not a public figure. According to Lithuanian law, in such cases a defendant's right to argue a court verdict is restricted.

Visockas considers the court verdict ludicrous. "How can the court predict what an average reader will conclude? If they are not asked, then the court's verdict is mere supposition and I find it very insulting."

At the Vilnius conference the journalist's lawyer said that the unprecedented verdict was an attempt by judges and the society at large to strike back at reporters for the widespread freedoms that exist in the Lithuanian press.

"But it was an innocent man who was hit by this verdict. The big fish have yet to be held accountable," said the lawyer.

She added that when the courts adjudicate cases involving slander or defamation, not only must the interests of both sides (public v private) be weighed, but that some semblance of balance must be maintained between compensation awards and a newspaper's ability to pay, and that this formula must be inscribed in the law.

As an example of such a violation of this principle, the lawyer cited a recent case where a Lithuanian paper was found guilty of character assassination when it published the personal details (names, residences) of a number of AIDS patients. The paper was obligated to pay each patient 3,000 Euros, the most it could fine the paper according to the law. At a time, the paper only had paid-in-capital of 9 million Euros.

After this verdict Lithuania attorneys filed a petition with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It found the Lithuanian government guilty of restricting people's rights by setting a maximum compensation level and ordered Lithuania to remove the threshold. Now, courts must decide on an individual case basis.

Visockas is also pinning his hopes on the European Court since the paper he runs is in a poor financial situation and can barely pay employee wages.

This example from Lithuania also reverberates with what is taking place in Armenia today, given the judiciary's assault on the media here.

Our courts do not take into consideration a media outlet's financial resources when issuing compensation awards for slander, defamation and related charges. They do not follow the principle of proportionality between the perceived extent of personal damage of the plaintiff and the defendant's ability to pay. They also gloss over the public's right to be informed.

We Armenian journalists at the conference weren't all that surprised by the criminal punishment meted out to this reporter in Lithuania, a member of the European Union. (In many European countries, slander and defamation are still on the books as criminal offenses.)

Rather, we were more astonished by the court's argument in finding Gintaras Visockas guilty in the first place; i.e. the probable assumptions of readers.

I thought to myself that it would be good if Armenian judges never got wind of this "substantiation" for use in their own verdicts.

But in the recent slander case pitting the Kocharyan family against the newspaper Hrapark, I saw that those involved in our legal system are cleverer by a mile. There, the plaintiff's legal team got to work taking choice adjectives out of context and building a case on such misrepresentation.

Here too in Armenia, we can only out our hopes in the European Court and wait for it to issue a decision brought by an Armenian media outlet.

But how will judges in Armenia comprehend it since, if they wanted to, they could take into account existing European Court legal precedents.

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