Three journalists had to stand before the court as defendants not for media publications, however. Court disputes were instituted on the basis of their Facebook posts, while the plaintiffs are the Regional Governor of Lori, the ex-Director of Yerevan Zoo and the online media outlet “News.am”.
The information was transmitted from Facebook to the media and returned to the same social medium in the form of a media publication. In this process boundaries are blurred and it is not clear when a media representative acts as a journalist and when s/he acts as a social media user. Whilst considering their Facebook pages as a personal sphere journalists often feel freer than when they make a publication in a media outlet. And suddenly in response they get a notification from the court.
Sona Harutyunyan, journalist from “1in.am”: “My FB post referred to Robert Kocharyan and I am sure that it is because of this that I appearred in the court.”
In her post Sona hinted that the media outlet “News.am” was bought by ex-President Robert Kocharyan. The media outlet lodged a complaint against her arguing that a post on such politically tainted ownership damages its professional reputation. “News.am” demanded an apology, retraction and a damages award.
Sona Harutyunyan, journalist from “1in.am”: “After the complaint against me had been lodged, this issue got more publicity and I believe that this damaged its professional reputation even more than my Facebook post.”
Aramazd Kiviryan, legal counsel: “Now tell me what has this value judgment of yours to do with the circumstance that in this particular case your argument was that the website was bought by Robert Kocharyan.”
Vahe Hovsepyan, legal counsel: “There were discussions and my client’s FB post was the product of such discussions.”
However, the defendants’ arguments confinced neither the first-instance court not the appeal court. The court concluded that Sona Harutyunyan published factual data, of which she did not possess any accurate information, i.e. this was a defamation.
Sona Harutyunyan, journalist from “1in.am”: “Prior to my Facebook post there were publications by diverse media outlets that Kocharyan had bought “News.am”. While making my publication I referred to them as the basis of my FB post. I submitted this evidence to the court. However, the court paid no attention to this evidence, regarded by FB post as a journalistic article.”
Aramazd Kiviryan, legal counsel․ “It is not that Facebook is equated to a media outlet but any publicity in any platform comes under this. This may happen either with the help of a media outlet or on Facebook, a person may go public on any platform.”
The journalist did not apply to the cassation court: having faced a court dispute lasting for over a year, Sona decided to close this page by paying 50 000 AMD to the plaintiff and to post a retraction on Facebook: the court granted the complaint in part not obligating the journalist to make an apology and reduced the amount of the claimed damages award by four.
Sona Harutyunyan, journalist from “1in.am”: “It is true that I executed the judicial act in accordance with their claim. However, I do not agree with it and I didn’t pursue my case before the courts of other instances because I had to dedicate additional financial resouces and nerves, which I preferred to dedicate to my profession and my family.”
Can this case become a precedent for any media outlet to apply to the court in case when a social media user hints of its political affiliation?
Ara Ghazaryan, lawyer, member of the Informational Disputes Council: “If I tell a news media outlet that it belongs to Kocharyan, this in itself is not defamatory. In the past the Constitutional Court interpreted that it is a defamation to attribute to a person such an act which is a crime or an offence. Ownership by Robert Kocharyan is neither a crime, nor an offence. In other words, this cannot be a defamation by force of law. This means that such a case will be declared inadmissible by the court, it will be discontinued.”
The international human rights organization “Journalists without borders” deemed the judicial act against Sona Harutyunyan of concern in view of the fact that in order to express an opinion on a non-formal platform the journalist must be exempt from quoting a source.
Aramazd Kiviryan, representing the interests of “News.am” considers the judicial act reasonable. The lawyer has a similar case in the court when a complaint was filed againt his journalist client: Narine Kirakosyan received a claim on retracting defamatory information and payment of non-pecuniary damages for a Facebook post. The plaintiff in this case is the ex-Director of Yerevan Zoo, Rouben Khachatryan.
Aramazd Kiviryan, legal counsel: “Narine Kirakosyan only expressed a concern on her personal page, which I do not think is a basis for Rouban Khachatryan to lodge such a claim.”
The environmentalist-journalist stated that Rouben Khachatryan gave rare animals owned by the state to other countries and that he took the multiplying couple of bearded vultures from Yerevan Zoo to the Foundation for the Protection of Wild Nature and Cultural Values, of which he is the director.
Aramazd Kiviryan, legal counsel: “This is a value judgment and not a contretised fact, as submitted by the other party. Where value judgments are concerned the party must not prove the truth of such statements.”
Rouben Khachatryan did not wish to speak about the complaint. It is difficult to say in what direction the case will progress and when the judicial act will be published since the hearings are regularly being postponed.
Karine Vanesyan, a journalists from Vanadzor was obligated by the courts of two instances to apologise before Andrey Ghukasyan, the Governor of Lori Region for disseminating expressions on Facebook, which are damaging to the Governor’s honour and dignity. Karine Vanesyan did not participate in any court hearing but submitted to the court in writing that she had not disseminated insult but only value judgments about the plaintiff. She also added another post to Facebook stating that instead of dealing with the problems of the region, the Regional Governor of Lori, Andrey Ghukasyan sues people for free opinion and expression.
Karen Toumanyan, legal counsel: “Her posts have nothing to do with free speech.”
Karen Toumanyan, representing the Regional Governor of Lori, Andrey Ghukasyan does not exclude that had Karine Vanesyan apologised in this process, they would have taken the complaint back from the court. However, the journalist does not intend to apologise and applied to the Cassation Court with a request to quash the decision of the court.
Ara Ghazaryan, lawyer, member of the Informational Disputes Council: “First, this is neither a journalistic nor a professional platform. Second, the speech used was vulgar. Third, the substance of this speech did not pursue any public interest. Considering these factors, we found that the court decision was lawful.”
This is the opinion of the Informational Disputes Council in the case of Andrey Ghukasyan v. Karine Vanesyan. The Council member Ara Ghazaryan explains why in this case of disputable public statement Karine Vanesyan could not resort to legal remedies foreseen for journalists.
Ara Ghazaryan, lawyer, member of the Informational Disputes Council: “An expression was used, which is perceived as unequivocally damaging to honour and dignity and this is how the court perceived and defined it.”
This, accoding to the Council, is not a case when a vulgar expression by a journalist can enjoy pritection equal to normal speech that has substance. In addition to this, the defendant failed to submit the factual basis for her value judgments.
Ara Ghazaryan, lawyer, member of the Informational Disputes Council: “If there is no factual basis, then we are facing an insult.”
Ara Ghazaryan is not concerned that these cases would become a precedent of journalists appearing before the court for any disputable statement: “The temptation to sue journalists is big. However, within a short while people understand that this is a meaningless enterprise for a journalist will always have the last word.”
Text by Karine Asatryan
The video was created in collaboration with “A1+” TV company