Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS OR FREEDOM TO HARASS?

Armenia's appeal courts are to rule on the much-publicised case of a local journalist accused of libeling the interior minister.
By Mark Grigorian

Armenia's court of appeal has begun reviewing the case of Nikol Pashinian, the 23 year-old editor of Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time), jailed for a year after being found guilty of libeling a politician, his family and colleagues, and for contempt of court.


The first journalist to be convicted for libel in an Armenian criminal court, Pashinian's imprisonment has attracted widespread criticism from human rights activists at home and abroad. The result of his appeal is eagerly awaited as a test of Armenia's commitment to press freedom.


Pashinian has been rarely out of the courts this year. His legal problems began in January when, as editor of Oragir newspaper, he sued the minister of interior and national security, Serge Sarkisian, for slander.


Pashinian sought legal redress after Sarkisian, no relation to the murdered Armenian prime minister, told a rival newspaper published by the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party, that a number of pieces on him carried by Oragir were defamatory.


Before the court even began hearing Pashinian's case, Sarkisian counter-sued, claiming that no fewer than 24 articles defamed him personally as well as the general staff in his ministry. One article proposed splitting the ministry of interior and national security into two separate ministries - an idea that was later adopted). A second carried interviews with two opposition politicians. Two more were reports of press conferences given by Sarkisian.


But the court found in Sarkisian's favour and the judge ordered Oragir to publish a full apology together with a retraction. Pashinian's first appeal against the decision was quickly dismissed, and his paper suffered a further setback in April when it was successfully sued in an unrelated case for "material loss" by the "Mika-Armenia" company and ordered to pay $25,000 damages.


Pashinian's problems mounted the following month when Oragir came out strongly against Sarkisian's Country of Law Party, during the parliamentary election campaign.


Media monitoring undertaken by the Yerevan NGO, Cooperation and Democracy, reveal Oragir's combative stance on the elections. Of the 281 articles Oragir published on parties during the election period, 168 were negative, 92 were neutral and only 11 were positive.


All 11 positive pieces were on the Armenian National Movement (ANM), with which Oragir was known to sympathise. By comparison, almost every issue of the paper was heavily critical of the Right and Accord" bloc, headed by Artashes Geghamian and supported by Samvel Babaian, who was then Nagorno-Karabakh's defence minister.


The paper ran a series of stories essentially rubbishing rival candidates of a particular district who were running against the ANM nominee. These essentially took the form of heavy-handed attacks on family members and included the allegation that the son of one candidate, Norik Ayvazian, was injured in a street fight and had the nickname 'Pig-Iron'.


Pashinian was once again accused of libel and once again found guilty. In the meantime, Oragir had not yet published the court-ordered apology and retraction. Nor had it paid damages to Mika-Armenia.


In June, the court gave Pashinian three days to comply with its orders or face the consequences. However, just two days after the warning was made, the court announced he was in contempt of court and ordered the confiscation of Oragir property in lieu of the damages it had failed to pay.


Pashinian was sentenced on August 31 for his accumulated "crimes", but remains free on appeal and is currently publishing a new paper, Haykakan Zhamanak (Armenian Time).


Rights groups have condemned Pashinian's judicial treatment. A joint declaration of the Armenian PEN Club and the Helsinki Association of Armenia reads: "The number of actions brought against Oragir and its editor Nikol Pashinian in 1999 is evidence of political persecution of a liberal newspaper and its editor".


"In 1999 almost as many cases were brought against Oragir as against all newspapers of Armenia from 1994 till 1998," stated Avetik Ishkhanian, a prominent human rights defender. "This is evidence of political prosecution".


Pashinian has received international support from the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Moscow-based Glasnost Defence Foundation.


But his fellow journalists have not been supportive. "If the paper and its editor had fought against the 'vendetta' on legal grounds rather than political, it could count on professional support," wrote the Yerevan Press Club in its Bulletin, No 5, 1999.


For its part, the Press Club claims that Pashinian, who is widely regarded in the media community here as the 'enfant terrible' of Armenian journalism for his aggressive reporting style, frequently violated journalistic ethics.


When questioned, however, the club's legal expert, Laura Baghdasarian, was unable to cite a single provision of its ethics code that Pashinian had supposedly violated.


Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project associate in Yerevan and Director of the NGO Cooperation and Democracy.