With Manipulated Text: In Defense of News Outlets

Mesrop Harutyunyan

Writer by calling

The recent abundance of lawsuits against news outlets for libel and insult reminded me my article on a trial two years ago, which I didn’t end up publishing: in my opinion, in order not to set a “bad example.” But now is the right time to publish it —  to show how we, journalists, can defend ourselves against those who take us to court any chance they get. Since two years have passed, I have removed names and also changed the expression that led to the trial, in case those informed of the case find out who is the journalist and who is the judge.

However, first, the article, which is an example with manipulated words; then, my comments and suggestions.

Who Won in the “Ignorant Plum” Trial? 

“Ay, ignorant plum”: this is the expression that, according to Judge X, journalist Y directed to him in response to his decision to remove the latter from the courtroom. And for this expression, the judge initiated a lawsuit in the same trial against the journalist, who, according to the judge’s insistence, called him an “ignorant plum”. 

To be honest, the details don’t interest me much: what, how and when it happened. Did the journalist actually call Judge X an “ignorant plum” or not, since it was clear to us from the beginning, that the outcome of this trial against the journalist who called or didn’t call the judge an “ignorant plum” was predetermined. Under the conditions of Armenia’s current judicial system, a ruling other than a fine for the journalist for the “ignorant plum” words he said or didn’t say to the judge perhaps no one even expected.

During the entire trial, the journalist repeatedly insisted that he didn’t call the judge an “ignorant plum”. The court didn’t want to hear his arguments and his witnesses who would prove that he didn’t call the judge an “ignorant plum”. The court only heard the court bailiffs who, acting as witnesses, insisted that the journalist called the judge an “ignorant plum” as he was leaving the courtroom. Thus, the court, issuing its ruling against the journalist essentially decided that the latter had called the judge an “ignorant plum,” though according to other journalists present in the trial, the journalist saying the words “uneducated plum” wasn’t proven in court.

Now a question: who won in this trial, the journalist, who must pay a fine, though he did not accept that he called the judge an “ignorant plum,” or the judge, who his being called or — as the journalist insisted — not called an “ignorant plum” many people learned about, including his colleagues who didn’t even know that during some trial or another the journalist called their fellow judge an “ignorant plum” (though the journalist continues to insist that he didn’t call the judge an “ignorant plum”).

Commentary and Suggestion to My Colleagues

Let me say right off the bat that I’m opposed to insults being hurled to a judge or any other person, but the aforementioned was a unique case: first, in my opinion, the judge unnecessarily asked the journalist to leave the courtroom, with that, hindering his lawful professional activities; second, this judge is known for his “unique love” (now “unique hate”) of news outlets; and third, the journalist personally assured me (and I’m inclined to believe him) that he made no such statement after leaving the courtroom — he only resisted the bailiffs.

In any case, in the article, I have violated neither ethical principles nor laws. I have said that which happened during court. And if I published that at the time, noting specific names and the expression for which the journalist paid a fine of 300,000 drams (about $822), no one could’ve accused me of anything, and I, manipulating the text in this way, essentially would’ve taught the judge a lesson.

Now my suggestion: I think this method of manipulation is one way of protecting ourselves from the recent increased legal actions. I’m not talking about obvious libel cases. I personally wouldn’t even defend the news outlet and journalist in such cases.

But, if our politicians, oligarchs, and public figures for every trivial occasion , even in the case when the news outlet has already published a retraction or has noted its source and so on, appeal to the “gun” that always shoots in the direction they want — that is, the court —, then we journalists must counter with the gun at our disposal — with words. In such cases, united news outlets can cover the trials and in covering it, repeat dozens of times those expressions for which the given oligarch, politician or public figure has sued. I think the plaintiff in this case would very quickly regret what he’s done, and in the future, he and his colleagues will think, is it really worth it? Isn’t it better to publish a retraction or a response in the same paper and end with that? 

I repeat, I wouldn’t want our press to be forced to work like this, but at least for a short period we have to teach a lesson to those figures who recently increased their “judicial appetites” …

Mesrop Harutyunyan


The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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