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Government Amends Media Bill After Sharp Criticism


By Anush Dashtents
The Armenian government has introduced an amended version of its draft law on mass media that has been strongly criticized and rejected by many local journalists and international experts.

The Justice Ministry, its main author, has dropped several highly controversial provisions, including one that would create a special government agency charged with "state oversight" of news organizations. Still, the new bill effectively allows the authorities to restrict press freedom if they feel that it jeopardizes "state security."

Deputy Justice Minister Ashot Abovian told RFE/RL on Monday that the proposed legislation, approved by the government last week, will be sent to the parliament after it is examined by Armenian media organizations and watchdogs as well as major international organizations. But he would not say what will happen if it again prompts negative reaction from them.

The original version of the bill, introduced last February, drew a chorus of disapproval from virtually all major media outlets that saw it as a threat to freedom of speech. It would, among other things, empower the government to issue and revoke licenses for the print and electronic media and require journalists to pay for interviews with government officials.

The government withdrew the draft in March, after experts from the Council of Europe concluded that it falls short of European standards. The Justice Ministry has since worked with representatives of the journalist community to come up with a more acceptable legislation. However, it is not clear to what extent the ministry has reckoned with their suggestions.

The new version does not contain licensing requirements and even enables the launch of media outlets without an official registration. It also stipulates that only courts can force journalists to disclose their sources of sensitive information.

However, the bill upholds a constitutional provision that allows curbs on press freedom in some circumstances. One of its articles reads that "dissemination of mass media" can be restricted by the government if that threatens "state and public security; public order, health and mores" as well as infringes on citizens' freedom.

Another provision, which also may cause controversy, envisages unspecified punishment for those who bring to Armenia "foreign publications that contain information contradicting Armenian legislation." Also, the bill does not give the media safeguards against arbitrary libel suits.

Under Armenian law, defamation of character is a criminal offense that can lead to a three-year prison term. Unlike the United States and other Western democracies, defamation does not have to be malicious and deliberate to be deemed a crime.
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