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Kristine Aghalaryan

Court Set to Rule: Ijevan Municipality v Investigative Journalists

Ups and Downs of Two Year Slander Suit Coming to a Close? “The scores of Ijevan cabbies who ply their trade along the pot-holed roads of the regional district center always have a few “choice words” to remember the Mayor by.” According to attorney Gevorg Davtyan, who represents the Ijevan Municipality in a slander suit filed against the “investigative Journalists, NGO”, the above sentence is an insult to Ijevan Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan. The suit stems from a May 5, 2008 Hetq article written by Tavush correspondent Voskan Sargsyan entitled “Who is Pocketing the Profits of the Sand Mine?” In the article, Mr. Sargsyan described the illegal sand mining operation taking place at the “White Water” reservoir on the Aghstev River along the southern entrance to Ijevan. The article was also published in an “Azg” newspaper insert on May 20, 2008. In the suit brought by the Ijevan Municipality to the Court of First Instance on June 19, 2008, Gevorg Davtyan, attorney for the plaintiff, claimed that, “…The information published by the defendant in the newspaper and website is baseless and contains slander that not only blemishes the honor of the mayor but his dignity and good name as well and harms the legal activities of the municipality.” In the suit filed at the Yerevan Civil Court, attorney Davtyan demanded that the court compel the “Investigative Journalists NGO” to publish a retraction of the baseless information and slander defaming the honor and dignity of Mayor Nersisyan and to fine the “Investigative Journalists” in the amount of 930,000 to compensate the municipality for legal fees incurred. On May 23, the Ijevan Municipal Council voted to allocate 930,000 AMD from the budget for legal fees aimed at “bringing the author of the slanderous article to account before the law”. On July 10, 2009, Judge Ruben Apinyan threw out the slander suit brought by the Ijevan Municipality charging the “Investigative Journalists NGO” with slander and publishing false information, arguing that the article in question contained nothing that defamed the working reputation of the Ijevan Municipality and thus there was no justification to demand a retraction. On August 7, 2009, the Ijevan Municipality and Ijevan Mayor Nersisyan filed a protest appeal to the Civil Court of Appeals, demanding that the decision of the Kentron and Nork-Marash District Court be overturned and that their original slander suit demands be sustained. On November 13, 2009, the Civil Court of Appeals decided in favour of the Ijevan Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan and overturned the July 10, 2009 verdict of the Yerevan Civil Court, sending the case back to the Kentron and Nork-Marash Administrative Court for reprocessing. The “Investigative Journalists, NGO” filed a protest regarding the Court of Appeal’s decision with the Court of Cassation, but the case was never accepted. The “Azg” newspaper was presented as a third-party in the case. This June 25, the Kentron and Nork-Marash Administrative District Court, Judge Gagik Khandanyan presiding, reviewed the appeal for a retraction and compensation. The Ijevan Municipality’s attorney argues that the original article was written in such a way to infer that the sand mining operation was being directly supervised by the mayor and that all the proceeds were going into his pocket. “How can this not have an influence on the working reputation of the mayor?” asked attorney Gevorg Davtyan. “After the article appeared, we were flooded with petitions and complaints. Appropriate agencies conducted reviews, even though an internal investigation proved that the information was unsubstantiated.” The attorney even claimed that the article’s title, “Who is Pocketing the Profits of the Sand Mine”, inferred an answer contained in the article – the mayor. Karen Mezhlumyan, attorney for the “Investigative Journalists”, noted however, that the title could merely be a direct question, the answer to which the reporter attempted to reveal by directing a corresponding query to the prosecutor; something also noted in the article. “What does the expression ‘choice words’ mean? In other words, allegorically, it conveys a very negative meaning. It means insults, that’s to say also curses addressed to a person”, said attorney Gevorg Davtyan during a conversation with Hetq. When Karen Mezhlumyan asked if the plaintiff, prior to petitioning the court, had presented a retraction demand to the “Investigative Journalists NGO”, Gevorg Davtyan cited the telephone call between Hetq Chief Editor Edik Baghdasaryan and Ijevan Mayor Nersisyan covered in the May 26, 2008 edition of Hetq. When the mayor asked Mr. Baghdasaryan if his conscience was at ease after publishing such information, the Hetq Editor replied, “Of course, all the facts have been checked. The documents and photos are at the editorial office. If you disagree, you can take the matter to the courts.” “So that’s what they did. They went to the courts,” said Gevorg Davtyan. Karen Mezhlumyan noted that this could not be considered as a retraction demand, firstly because it wasn’t in writing and secondly, there was no retraction demand in the text. Gevorg Davtyan countered, saying that according to Article 8 of the “Mass Media Law” there is no differentiation between oral or written demands. Karen Mezhlumyan added that the article in question presupposes “that a demand be made against a news reporter to retract proven inaccuracies that violate ones rights”, while the demand of the plaintiff refers to Article 19 of the Civil Code – “information defaming ones good reputation”. The Hetq attorney noted that there were no insults in any of the original articles and thus, there was no argument regarding honor and dignity that could be raised. Attorney Karen Mezhlumyan also pointed out that the reporter notes, “According to our information, this business operation is under the control of Varujan Nersisyan, the Mayor of Ijevan.”  And that in order to verify this information the reporter sent a letter of inquiry to the Tavush Regional Prosecutor’s Office. “Where is the insult here? All that is presented is what steps the reporter took,” added Mr. Mezhlumyan. In the attorney’s estimation, this case shouldn’t have even appeared in court since the plaintiff’s suit deals with Article 19 of the Civil Code – the rights of a juridical entity. Given that the Ijevan Municipality is not a juridical entity it cannot enjoy a working reputation. Despite the targeted questioning of the Hetq attorney, the plaintiff’s lawyer raised continuous objections. The court also examined evidence presented during the prior stage. Karen Mezhlumyan presented two motions to the court, requesting an examination of the testimony of reporter Voskan Sargsyan and the video tapes clearly showing the excavation of sand at the site. Judge Khandanyan rejected the motions, arguing that they had already been examined and that there was no need to do so again. We should remind readers that in court, reporter Sargsyan proved that all the evidence and facts listed in his article were based on responses to   written inquiries he had addressed to “responsible” parties and on his own investigative work. He added that based on the evidence he had amassed he went ahead and expressed a set of observations and opinions in the article and that he had the right to do so as a journalist. The court will hand down its decision in the case “Ijevan Municipality v Investigative Journalists NGO” on July 9.