By Armen Zakarian
Armenia’s leading media associations criticized on Wednesday a Council of Europe body dealing with legislative reform for supporting constitutional amendments which they said fail to guarantee the freedom and independence of Armenian electronic media.
“We believe that the Venice Commission’s proposals on the freedom, independence and diversity of mass media are flawed and can not put in place the necessary guarantees of freedom of speech in Armenia,” the Yerevan Press Club and six other organizations said in a joint statement.
The criticism was echoed by a pro-opposition lawyer representing a coalition of Armenian non-governmental organizations who said the Venice Commission’s endorsement of the amendments drafted by the Armenian authorities does not fully reflect the Council of Europe’s official position. Vartan Poghosian, who heads an NGO called Democracy, singled out constitutional mechanisms for the formation of two bodies that regulate electronic media in Armenia and are not seen as independent.
One of those bodies, the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH), has the authority to issue and revoke broadcasting licenses. All of its members are appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in particular have long demanded that the Armenian parliament have a say in the HRAH’s formation.
The Armenian authorities initially offered to give the National Assembly the right to endorse or reject commission members nominated by the president. However, the proposed change drew criticism from the seven media groups that issued Wednesday’s statement.
Under the latest version of Kocharian’s constitutional draft, the president and the parliament would each appoint half of the HRAH members. However, “transitional provisions” attached to the draft stipulate that these changes would take effect only after the current commission members complete their legally defined tenure.
Poghosian claimed that by endorsing those provisions the Venice Commission contradicted the PACE’s June resolution on Armenia which calls for all amendments to come into force “as soon as reasonably possible.” “Unfortunately, this provision was not quite clear to the Venice Commission,” he complained.
He said the PACE has also repeatedly demanded that the Armenian authorities ensure the independence of another commission that oversees the Kocharian-controlled Armenian Public Television and Radio. The Armenian president will continue to single-handedly appoint its members if the constitution is amended.
The media groups also protested against this fact. “The president’s and the parliament’s equal participation in the HRAH’s formation does not add anything significant to the guarantees of that body’s independence, while the governing board of the Public Television is being absolutely ignored,” read their statement.
A senior member of the Partnership for Open Society that unites dozens of local civic groups, Poghosian took part in last month’s talks in Strasbourg between Armenian officials and Venice Commission experts. The commission concluded last week that Yerevan has honored its commitments made during those discussions.
(Photolur photo: Vartan Poghosian.)