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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The leadership of Armenia’s state television and radio is pushing for an end to the presently mandatory broadcasts of parliament sessions that regularly feature opposition attacks on the government.

The chairman of the government-controlled Armenian Public Television and Radio (HHR), Aleksan Harutiunian, claimed on Friday that legal provisions obligating it to broadcast parliament debates runs counter to European standards for press freedom and must therefore be abolished.

Under Armenian law, the National Assembly’s four-day sessions, which take place once in three weeks, have to be broadcast live on one of HHR’s radio channels. The state television also has to show the two parliament sittings during which lawmakers put questions to government ministers and read out three-minute statements on any topic. Opposition leaders, who are rarely given airtime by HHR and private channels loyal to President Robert Kocharian, have always heavily used this opportunity to get their message across.

According to Harutiunian, forcing a TV station to broadcast anything by law is wrong by definition. “Of course I am not so naïve as to say that this is the main danger to press freedom in Armenia,” the former chief of Kocharian’s staff told RFE/RL. “I just want the abolition of legal norms that could be viewed by European structures as endangering freedom of speech.”

“The National Assembly should simply rectify that because we are now a member of the Council of Europe,” he said.

Harutiunian said the assembly could in return be provided with additional government funding to have a separate TV or radio frequency or to commission broadcasts of parliament sessions from private networks. He warned that HHR may appeal to the Constitutional Court if the parliament refuses to abolish the relevant legal clauses.

Leaders of the parliament’s pro-Kocharian majority said they do not object to the idea in principle. Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian told RFE/RL that while he thinks that the issue “has nothing to do with our obligations to the Council of Europe,” legal requirements to state television can be altered. “We must find the most useful and effective way of presenting the work of the parliament to the population,” he said.

“We can reach agreement after discussions,” said Samvel Balasanian of the governing Orinats Yerkir party. “The parliament may have a separate channel.”

Opposition lawmakers, however, are already up in arms against the proposed change. Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party (AMK), lambasted it in a Friday speech to AMK activists. “They are scared of even three-minute opposition speeches,” he said, referring to the authorities.

“Everything is being done to further limit the opposition’s ability to appear on television,” charged another prominent oppositionist, Arshak Sadoyan of the Artarutyun alliance.

European observers have strongly criticized HHR and other local broadcasters for what they consider extremely biased coverage of every national election and referendum held in Armenia over the past decade. Harutiunian has rejected the criticism.

(Photolur photo: Aleksan Harutiunian.)
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