A court in Yerevan has frozen the assets of an Armenian newspaper and one of its journalists who has accused a leading political ally of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian of illicit enrichment.
In a video report posted on the 168 Zham newspaper’s website this month, the journalist, Davit Sargsian, described Yerevan’s Deputy Mayor Tigran Avinian as a “nouveau riche” whose family has been “steadily getting richer” ever since Pashinian came to power in 2018. It detailed the family’s allegedly extensive business interests developed in the last five years.
The reported claimed, in particular, that Avinian’s mother bought an expensive apartment in central Yerevan before becoming recently a co-owner of two firms and a 9-hectare plot of land in southern Armavir province.
Avinian, who will be the ruling Civil Contract’s candidate in upcoming mayoral elections in the Armenian capital, took the newspaper to court. He is seeking an unprecedentedly hefty compensation for the “slanderous” report which he claims damaged his “business reputation.”
Acting on Avinian’s demand, the court decided earlier this week to freeze 18 million drams ($46,000) worth of assets belonging to 168 Zham and Sargsian personally pending its verdict in the case. The sum is huge by Armenian media standards.
Avinian, who also served as Armenia’s deputy prime minister from 2018-2021, defended the legal action when he spoke to reporters on Thursday.
“I can only advise media outlets to bear in mind before slandering anyone, lying about anyone that they can face such proceedings,” he said. “But I am otherwise not an enemy of the media.”
The 34-year-old politician did not specify which parts of the 5-minute video authored by Sargsian and posted on 168.am are untrue.
“Avinian’s real aim is to inflict significant material damage on me and thereby silence me,” Sargsian countered in a Facebook post.
The journalist, who is highly critical of the Armenian government, insisted that he simply shared with viewers credible information that was earlier reported by other media outlets and not refuted by Avinian.
Press freedom groups also criticized the lawsuit, saying that no Armenian media outlets or journalists have risked such heavy fines before.
“We are seeing a typical case of an official trying to muzzle and punish a media outlet,” said Shushan Doydoyan of the Yerevan-based Center for Freedom of Information. She noted that Avinian did not demand that the paper retract its corruption claims before he filed the lawsuit.
Pro-opposition and independent publications increasingly accuse members of Pashinian’s entourage of enriching themselves or their cronies and breaking their anti-corruption promises given during the 2018 “velvet revolution.”
Last month, hackers hijacked the YouTube channel of another newspaper, Aravot, as it was about to publish a video report detailing expensive property acquisitions by several senior government officials and pro-government lawmakers.
Earlier this year, Pashinian blamed such reports for a drop in Armenia’s position in an annual corruption survey conducted by Transparency International. He publicly urged senior officials to sue media outlets “falsely” accusing them of illicit enrichment.
In 2021, the Armenian parliament controlled by Pashinian’s party tripled maximum legal fines set for defamation.