By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading journalist groups have criticized the government’s new draft law on mass media, despite the removal of several controversial provisions seen as threatening press freedom. However, they are divided over whether it should be further amended or scrapped altogether.
The government approved and made public an amended version of the proposed legislation last week, several months after shelving it amid strong domestic and international criticism. The draft no longer calls for the creation of a special government agency charged with issuing and revoking licenses to media organizations. Furthermore, it effectively abolishes mandatory registration of the media with the Justice Ministry.
Still, the Armenian National Press Club has accused the government of planning to rein in critical media outlets ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The club is against the bill’s inclusion on the parliament agenda before the elections. “It is obvious that any change of the existing legislation or adoption of a new law during the pre-election period would be biased [against the media],” its deputy chairwoman, Narine Dilbarian, said on Friday.
But another local media association, the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), favors a more conciliatory approach and prefers to work with the Justice Ministry on ways of further improving the bill. One of its leading members, Mesrop Harutiunian, said that YPC has already submitted its own draft amendments to the ministry.
Local journalists are primarily unhappy with a clause allowing the government to restrict media activities if it feels that they threaten "state and public security; public order, health and mores" as well as infringe on citizens' freedom. They also strongly object to another provision that obligates the media to publicize their sources of funding. Those are often kept secret in Armenia.
But Deputy Justice Minister Ashot Abovian insisted on Friday that passage of the bill would strengthen freedom of speech in Armenia and denied any connection between its circulation and the upcoming elections. Abovian told RFE/RL that the draft will be sent to the parliament despite street protests planned by the National Press Club.