By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian parliament began on Wednesday debates on a controversial government bill on mass media harshly criticized by many local journalists. About 30 of them picketed the National Assembly building in Yerevan, protesting what they see as a threat to press freedom.
The draft law submitted to lawmakers underwent major changes last year after facing strong domestic and international criticism. The Justice Ministry, its main author, removed several controversial provisions which would create a special government agency empowered to issue and revoke licenses for media organizations. The amended version of the proposed law also spares them the need to register with the ministry.
Nevertheless, several Armenian media associations insist that it remains deeply flawed and should be scrapped altogether. One such group, the National Press Club (NPC), rallied its members, many of whom work for pro-opposition publications, outside the parliament.
In a written statement, they urged the deputies to vote against the bill. One activist warned that the protesting journalists will campaign against the reelection of those deputies who will back the government initiative.
The parliament’s opposition minority voiced its support for the journalists. Two of the parliament’s standing committees, headed by opposition lawmakers, refused to endorse the draft law. “People fighting against the media always lose,” warned Victor Dallakian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs.
Dallakian proposed more than 30 amendments which he said will address media concerns.
Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry appeared to cave in to the pressure, withdrawing a parallel proposal that would facilitate libel suits against reporters. Its proposed amendment to Armenia’s Civil Code would force the media to pay material compensation for reports causing “moral damage” to readers, viewers or listeners. The NPC said the clause, if approved by the parliament, would result in government censorship.
The government, on the other hand, kept intact a provision in the media bill that obligates news organizations to disclose their sources of funding. Also causing controversy is another clause that allows courts to demand the disclosure of journalists’ sources of information for the “protection of public interests.”
The deputy parliament speaker, Tigran Torosian, agreed with some of the criticism but urged the deputies to vote for the bill in the first reading on Monday. He said final debates on it will be held by the next National Assembly to be elected on May 25.