Saturday, 07 December

Mayor of Ijevan vs. Investigative Journalists: Plaintiff to Appeal Lower Court Decision

Ijevan Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan is unhappy with a lower court’s decision that found in favor of the “Investigative Journalists NGO”, the defendant in a slander case initiated by the Ijevan Municipality. Mayor Nersisyan plans to appeal to a higher court.

Why is the Ijevan Mayor Nersisyan so upset?

In its May 5, 2008 edition, “Hetq” published an 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. The reporter checked his facts on site and photographed the mining operation and trucks transporting the sand. Mr. Sargsyan spoke with workers at the sand mine and attempted to get answers in writing from operation management. According to a 1997 government decision, “White Water” was designated Ijevan public property. However, the Ijevan Municipality, tasked with overseeing the property, failed to respond to a written inquiry sent back on October 27, 2007. The RoA Ministry of Nature Protection had stated that “the right to utilize the reservoir’s sand hadn’t been granted to any physical or legal entity given that a resource study of the area hadn’t been carried out and a licensing agreement hadn’t been issued.” The General Prosecutor’s Office, instead of verifying the evidence presented in the article, questioned the municipality and reported that only river silt had been transported out of the reservoir; effectively refuting evidence to the contrary. In the meanwhile, the reporter traveled to Dilijan, uncovering the fat that “White Water” sand was being trucked in for use during construction work on the amphitheater in June. Based on the ample evidence before him, the “Hetq” reporter concluded that the illegal sand mining was being carried out with the full knowledge and permission of Ijevan Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan. This conclusion didn’t meet with the approval of the mayor. In the suit brought by the Ijevan Municipality to the Court of First Instance, 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.” On June 19, attorney Davtyan initiated a suit at the Yerevan Civil Court demanding 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”. At the session, Councilman Vahe Ghalumyan asked whether it was correct to allocate such an amount from the municipal budget. Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan responded that an attorney with special credentials was needed to initiate such a case and promised that the 930,000 AMD would be returned to the budget. The “Investigative Journalists” wrote to the Ijevan mayor, requesting that it make the minutes of the council session available along with the decision permitting 930,000 AMD to be spent from the municipal budget for legal fees for a suit against it seeking redress of the slanderous charges. Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan refused to hand over the documents, arguing that he wished to “avoid any possible manipulation of the documents”, saying that they would be made available after court proceedings had ended.

“Investigative Journalists” counter-sue

The “Investigative Journalists” then counter-sued, demanding that the mayor make the documents in question available. On November 26, the RoA Administrative Court partially found in favor of the “Investigative Journalists” counter-suit against the Ijevan mayor. The court demanded that the Ijevan mayor hand over copies of the decisions passed by the council to the “Investigative Journalists” within a five day period; that is by December 1, 2008. The countersuit brought by the “Investigative Journalists” NGO had also sought 114,000 drams in damages and legal expenses from the Ijevan Mayor. In addition, the Court decided to have 8,000 drams appropriated from the Ijevan Municipality’s budget to go to the Investigative Journalists NGO as compensation. The additional 106,000 drams sought by the “IJ” was rejected by the Court. The Ijevan Municipality never acted on the court’s decision, prompting the “Investigative Journalists” to petition the Compulsory Enforcement Service of Judicial Decrees. This proved fruitless as well.

Court throws out Ijevan slander suit as baseless

Simultaneously, the suit brought by the Ijevan Municipality against the “Investigative Journalists” continued at the Kentron and Nork-Marash District Court, Judge Ruben Apinyan presiding. During the hearing, the plaintiff was not able to specify what information contained in the original article was unfounded, slanderous and had defamed the good name of the mayor. The plaintiff merely cited two articles that had appeared as complete defamation of the mayor; “Who is Pocketing the Profits from the Sand Mine?” and “Mayor of Ijevan Seeks to Sue Reporter Over «Slander» in Illegal Sand Mine article”. In an attempt to refute the evidence contained in these articles, the plaintiff’s suit claimed that the Ijevan Municipality had always been interested in exposing illegal mining operations and that it had petitioned T. Baghdasaryan and S. Galstyan, heads of the Ijevan Internal Affairs Division, on numerous occasions with this objective in mind. The “Investigative Journalists” made the counter-claim that illegal mining of sand from the lake bed had taken place and that the accompanying photos were proof of same. Voskan Sargsyan, the article’s author, was called as a primary witness and a representative from the newspaper “Azg” was called in as a third-party. As a result of the motion of attorney Karen Mezhlumyan, who represented the “Investigative Journalists”, Ijevan Mayor Nersisyan was also subpoenaed and questioned by the court. 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. On July 10, 2009, Judge Ruben Apinyan threw out the slander suit brought by the Ijevan Municipality threw out the suit it filed 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. The court also recognized the fact that the photos offered in evidence verified the allegations made by the “Investigative Journalists”, in particular, that sand was being removed from the “White Water” reservoir located on the Aghstev River. Furthermore, the court found that reports contained in the article that the sand mining operation was conducted under the supervision of Ijevan Mayor Varuzhan Nersisyan were never presented as “fact”, but rather that “certain information exists that the reporter attempted to verify and made written inquiries to government bodies”. On August 7, 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. The plaintiff, in its appeals petition, notes that the following sentence in the reporter’s article is particularly offensive and a direct insult to the mayor –  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.

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