Stockholm, May 23, 2023— A court in the Armenian capital of Yerevan should unfreeze the assets of journalist Davit Sargsyan and the independent news outlet 168 Hours, and the country’s authorities should ensure that members of the press do not face legal retaliation for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.
On May 2, the Court of General Jurisdiction in Yerevan ordered 9 million dram (US$23,000) of Sargsyan’s assets to be frozen, as well as 9 million dram of the assets of his employer, 168 Hours, according to news reports and Sargsyan’s lawyer Aram Orbelyan, who spoke to CPJ.
The freeze stems from a civil defamation suit filed by Yerevan Deputy Mayor Tigran Avinyan on March 31, in response to a February 5 video report by Sargsyan accusing him of corruption.
On May 16, Avinyan’s lawyer announced on Facebook that he had applied to the court to withdraw the freeze on Sargsyan’s assets, saying his client had “no intention of bankrupting any media outlet or causing any financial inconveniences.”
Orbelyan told CPJ on Monday, May 22, that a court representative had confirmed the receipt of Avinyan’s application to drop the freeze, but authorities had yet to act on it. CPJ called the Court of General Jurisdiction for comment but no one answered.
“The asset freezes imposed on Armenian journalist Davit Sargsyan and the outlet 168 Hours are a worrying development that could have a chilling effect on the country’s media,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should drop these freezes and ensure that civil lawsuits against the media do not risk bankrupting independent outlets.”
168 Hours is frequently critical of the Armenian government. In the February video report, “Tigran Avinyan, the newly rich man,” Sargsyan alleged that Avinyan’s family was “steadily getting richer” through political influence since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018, those reports stated.
Orbelyan told CPJ that Avinyan did not challenge the facts cited in Sargsyan’s report but denied that they constituted corruption. CPJ emailed Avinyan for comment but did not receive any reply.
Ashot Melikyan, chair of the local advocacy group Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech, told CPJ that the case was the first time a media outlet has been sued for the maximum 9 million dram since Armenia enacted amendments tripling maximum fines for insult and defamation in 2021.
Aramazd Kiviryan, a lawyer for 168 Hours, told CPJ that insult and defamation claims in Armenia are generally in the range of 100,000 to 500,000 dram (US$258 to $1,292) and while courts occasionally froze media outlets’ assets, they typically involved much smaller sums.
The present freeze poses a significant problem for 168 Hours’ operations, he said. Kiviryan told CPJ that 168 Hours would apply to have the freeze lifted, and if they failed it would remain in place until the court’s final decision on the lawsuit, which could take years.
Sargsyan wrote on Facebook that he relied on previously published materials for his reporting, which Avinyan had not denied at the time. He wrote that he believed the suit aimed “to cause me significant financial damage and thus to keep me silent.”