By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
The National Assembly is due debate on Thursday government bills that could end the Armenian-language broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a key source of information for a considerable part of Armenia’s population.
The two bills sent to the parliament late on Tuesday were swiftly condemned by local media rights groups and top opposition leaders as an attempt to muzzle what they regard as the only electronic media outlet not controlled by the administration of President Robert Kocharian.
One of the proposed legal amendments would ban the Armenian Public Television and Radio (HHHR) from retransmitting programs of foreign broadcasters. RFE/RL’s Armenian Service primarily relies on the HHHR’s radio frequencies to air its daily news programs across Armenia.
Under the other amendment, the private radio stations, which air some of those programs, would have to pay hefty fees to the state budget.
Government officials have yet to explain the rationale for the proposed changes which seem to have taken leaders of the parliament’s pro-government majority by surprise. They on Wednesday praised RFE/RL’s activities in Armenia but would not specify if they will urge fellow lawmakers to reject the government initiative.
“I will express my view once the discussion begins,” said parliament speaker Tigran Torosian. “I think we should stay calm and wait until the government rapporteur presents the bill and his arguments in its favor.”
The opposition minority in the parliament was quick to condemn the bills, with Raffi Hovannisian, leader of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, saying that he fears that they are a prelude to ending RFE/RL broadcasts in Armenia.
“The prime minister and the government must be mindful of the goals and consequences of their legislative initiatives,” said Hovannisian. “Zharangutyun will vote against them. We consider this a blow to the interests of the Republic of Armenia and the rights of our citizens.”
The condemnation was echoed by virtually all other major opposition groups not represented in the recently elected legislature. “Radio Liberty is the only free broadcaster operating in Armenia,” said Vazgen Manukian of the National Democratic Union. “Shutting it down would mean shutting down Armenia. This would be the greatest disgrace of recent years.”
“Why are they doing this? Because they are afraid of Radio Liberty,” said Aram Sarkisian, another prominent oppositionist. “Radio Liberty is the only broadcaster which is independent and not controlled by the authorities.”
“During all these years our public received objective information only from Radio Liberty’s Armenian service,” agreed Grigor Harutiunian of the People’s Party of Armenia. “In the run-up to the presidential elections they are moving to strip the public of this sole source of objective information.”
RFE/RL had for decades served as one of the few sources of uncensored information for the peoples of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. The collapse of Communism enabled the U.S.-funded corporation to legally operate inside the former Communist bloc and reach retransmission agreements with local broadcasters.
RFE/RL’s Armenian service was likewise able to openly operate in Armenia and lease state radio frequencies until being controversially forced off the air in late 1994 by then President Levon Ter-Petrosian. The move forced the service to rely only on the far less accessible shortwave broadcasts from Europe.
Kocharian resumed the retransmission of its programs by state radio shortly after he came to power in 1998. But in recent years, he has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with RFE/RL’s coverage of elections and other political developments in Armenia which he says casts his administration only in a negative light.
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who intends to succeed Kocharian in next year’s presidential election, has likewise criticized RFE/RL’s news reporting and coverage of last month’s parliamentary elections in particular. During the election campaign he specifically faulted the Prague-headquartered broadcaster for quoting participants of rallies held by his Republican Party as saying that they were forced to attend the gatherings by government officials.
By contrast, RFE/RL’s election coverage has always been praised not only by opposition politicians but also Western election observers. The latter have been far more critical of the Armenian TV and radio stations, virtually all of them loyal to the country’s leadership.
Armenia’s leading media associations take a similar view. Their representatives expressed serious concern at the government bills, saying that their main target is RFE/RL.
“They should have officially called it a bill on discontinuing retransmission of the Radio Liberty programs,” said Mesrop Harutiunian of the Yerevan Press Club.
“I believe that both bills are directed against Radio Liberty,” agreed David Sandukhchian, a lawyer at the media support group Internews Armenia. “Their purpose is to at least complicate its work.”