By Atom Markarian
President Robert Kocharian responded on Wednesday to a rising media outcry over a new government bill on mass media, saying that it will not be enacted without the Council of Europe’s approval.
The overwhelming majority of newspapers and broadcasting organizations, including those usually supporting the authorities, has condemned the draft law, warning that it threatens press freedom in Armenia. They say the government would gain more levers to suppress criticism of its activities.
“Until we get Council of Europe experts’ conclusion regarding this bill we will not discuss it,” Kocharian told reporters in a bid to reassure them.
“If we get a positive conclusion that will mean that the bill meets European standards. If not, we will bring it into conformity with those standards. So don’t worry,” he said.
Among controversial clauses of the proposed law is a requirement that government officials interviewed by journalists be paid a honorarium. Journalists wishing to interview officials would have to file a written request and await a reply for several days. Also, newspapers would need officials’ consent for publishing their photographs or cartoons.
Local editors and media watchdogs claim that the bill makes it easier for government officials to file libel suits and envisages heavier fines for alleged slander.
The ministry of justice, the main author of the controversial bill, insists that it will on the contrary boost freedom of speech guaranteed by the Armenian constitution. The ministry argues, in particular, that the suggested replacement of the mandatory registration of all media outlets with their licensing would facilitate creation of newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations.
But critics counter that a government agency in charge of issuing licenses would also be empowered to revoke them. They insist that the new bill is even worse than the existing 1991 media law which is widely seen as outdated and flawed.
Kocharian, speaking to journalists during a visit to a trade exhibition in Yerevan, said he is committed to protecting press freedom but also believes that the work of the media must be regulated by law. “We all need free media. But we all need responsible media as well,” he said without elaborating.
There are several hundred media outlets registered with the Armenian justice ministry. But only some 150 newspapers and magazines, more than 60 national and local TV stations, nine radio stations and five news agencies are regularly active.