By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia’s leading media associations brushed aside on Tuesday a government bill which is designed to make a powerful body regulating broadcasting more independent of President Robert Kocharian.
The bill stems from one of the recently enacted amendments to the Armenian constitution which stipulates that the Armenian television and radio stations must be regulated by an “independent” state body.
The existing National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH), which has the exclusive authority to issue and revoke broadcasting licenses, has until now been single-handedly formed by Kocharian and is widely believed to be controlled by him. Under the government bill in question, the Armenian parliament and president would each appoint four of its eight members for a six-year term. The current members of the HRAH would be allowed to complete their tenures defined by the existing Armenian law on television and radio.
The commission would also be required to “substantiate in a proper manner” the distribution and withdrawal of television and radio frequencies.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who presented the draft law to the National Assembly, said these changes would help to reduce government influence on to private broadcasters. Virtually all of them are loyal to Armenia’s leadership at present.
The only TV channel that frequently broadcast criticism of the government, A1+, was controversially pulled off the air by the HRAH in April 2002. Its repeated attempts to resume broadcasts have since been blocked by the regulatory body headed by a former senior member of the presidential administration. Domestic and international media watchdogs view this as a vivid indication of the government’s tight grip on the Armenian electronic media.
In a joint statement, the Yerevan Press Club, the Armenian Union of Journalists and three other groups said the proposed changes do not ensure the HRAH’s independence and therefore “cause serious concerns regarding freedom of speech and a fair and objective regulation of the market for television and radio broadcasting.” They argued in particular that it would take years before the composition of the HRAH changes significantly. They suggested that the new commission have 16 members, half of whom would be appointed by the parliament at once.
The signatories complained that the legal amendments were drafted by the government “hastily” and without consultation with local journalists and organizations defending their interests. They urged the parliament to delay the debate on the bill pending “public hearings” on the issue.