By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government will push for the passage by the new parliament of its controversial bill on mass media criticized as undemocratic by local journalists and rejected by the previous legislature, a senior official said on Monday.
Deputy Minister of Justice Minister Ashot Abovian told RFE/RL that the bill will be submitted to a corresponding parliament committee this summer before being debated by the full National Assembly this fall. It has undergone only minor “editorial changes,” he said.
The proposed legislation sparked a controversy earlier this year, prompting street protests by dozens of journalists mainly working for the pro-opposition media. Accusing the authorities of seeking to restrict press freedom, they succeeded in having the parliament rejected the bill in April.
The journalists were particularly concerned about a provision that would require media outlets to disclose their sources of funding -- a very delicate issue in Armenia. They also strongly objected to a legal clause that allows courts to demand the disclosure of journalists’ sources of information for the “protection of public interests.”
Abovian again brushed aside their concerns. “I am convinced that the draft law is good,” he said. “The part of the media community which is opposed to it should indicate provisions regarding which it has objections, reservations or proposals. We will discuss them.”
Legal safeguards for press freedom in Armenia are also a subject of concern for senior Yerevan-based diplomats from major Western nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In an open letter to parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian this month, they called for the abolition of an article of the new Armenian Criminal Code that makes libel an offence punishable by up to three years in prison. The diplomats also criticized other provisions that allow jail sentences against individuals accused of publicly insulting government officials.
Meeting last week with the head of the OSCE’s Yerevan office, Roy Reeve, Baghdasarian promised to amend the code in line with the European standards. But in a written statement issued on Monday, he appeared to reject the idea of decriminalizing libel. Baghdasarian listed 22 European countries where he said defamation of character is regulated by criminal law.