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Court freezes newspaper assets over report into Yerevan Deputy Mayor’s wealth

15 May 2023
Davit Sargsyan in his report about Deputy Mayor Tigran Avinyan’s wealth. Screengrab via 168 Zham.

A Yerevan court has frozen the assets of an Armenian journalist and their newspaper after the paper accused Yerevan’s Deputy Mayor, Tigran Avinyan, of illicit enrichment.

Davit Sargsyan, a journalist for 168 Zham, an opposition newspaper, produced a video report claiming that Avinyan and his family had become richer since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan assumed office following the 2018 revolution.

Avinyan, a close ally of Pashinyan’s and the ruling Civil Contract party’s candidate in the upcoming mayoral elections in Yerevan this autumn, filed a lawsuit against 168 Zham seeking ‘substantial compensation’. He argued their ‘defamatory’ report harmed his reputation.

The court granted Avinyan’s request to freeze the assets of both the newspaper and the journalist — worth ֏18 million ($47,000) and ֏9 million ($23,000) respectively — until a verdict is reached in the case.

Avinyan defended his legal action, stating that media outlets should consider the consequences of ‘lies and defamation’.

‘I am neither an enemy of the media, nor do I have a desire to enter into legal proceedings with any media, but unfortunately, while obvious and open lies and defamation are being written about me or another official, these processes are simply inevitable’, the deputy mayor told journalists last week.

On Thusday, Sargsyan accused Avinyan of ‘causing [him] financial problems to silence him’.

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He called the court’s decision ‘unprecedented’ as it decided to not only target 168 Zham but him as well.

‘My outlet and I will use all legal means to lift the asset freeze on our accounts and my apartment, and continue to expose the prime minister’s true face with a greater momentum.’

Media freedom advocates have criticised the lawsuit, noting that Armenian media outlets and journalists have not previously faced such hefty fines. Shushan Doydoyan, from the Freedom of Information Centre in Yerevan, told RFE/RL the legal action was an attempt to suppress and punish the media.

Pashinyan’s ally

Businessman Tigran Avinyan debuted in Armenian politics as Deputy Prime Minister after Pashinyan came to power.

He left his post after refusing to run in the 2021 parliamentary elections in protest against Civil Contract’s inclusion of businesspeople in their list of candidates.

Despite falling out with the ruling party, Avinyan remained in Pashinyan’s team as Chair of the Board of the Armenian National Interest Fund and was appointed Deputy Mayor of Yerevan in September last year.

Avinyan has previously been the subject of investigative reports over alleged conflicts of interest related to his involvement in several business projects and land purchases.

Avinyan, who helped develop legislation that allows the cultivation of industrial hemp, was accused of having ties to the then budding industry in July 2022. In September of that year, reports indicated that his mother, Hasmik Khlghatyan, had purchased a plot of land in Armavir.