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By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
A legal ban on retransmission of foreign broadcasts by Armenia’s widely accessible state radio could extend to the daily news programs of RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian said on Monday.

Danielian made this clear as parliament wrapped up heated debates on a package of government-drafted amendments to the Armenian laws on broadcasting and state duties that are widely regarded as an attempt to severely restrict RFE/RL broadcasts. The National Assembly passed the draft amendments in the first reading on Friday and is expected to turn them into law on Tuesday.

In what may have been a sign of disagreements within the country’s leadership, Danielian’s remarks contradicted renewed assurances by top members of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) that the highly controversial bill does not apply to the crucial retransmission of RFE/RL’s popular Armenian-language programs by the government-controlled Public Radio.

“This law can in no way apply to Radio Liberty,” Samvel Nikoyan, a senior HHK lawmaker, said, presenting the governing party’s official position on the contentious issue.

Another top Republican, parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, was also at pains to insist on this during Monday’s debates and in an extensive weekend interview with RFE/RL. Torosian repeated his arguments that the proposed ban concerns only “broadcasting companies.” Under Armenian law, RFE/RL can not be considered as such because it does not have its own broadcasting license and has to use the broadcasting frequencies of state and private radios instead, he said.

“Nobody will have the legal grounds to close down Radio Liberty on the basis of this bill, if it is adopted,” said Torosian. “I say this for certain. And if it crosses somebody’s mind to take such a step after the adoption of this law, you will be able to easily challenge those ‘grounds’ in the court.”

However, the government added to its package on Monday new language containing a more ambiguous legal definition of “broadcaster” which Danielian said may apply to RFE/RL. Asked by RFE/RL to explain the diametrically opposite interpretations of the bill by senior officials, the justice minister said vaguely: “There are new terms, new formulations, and the situation is new. There are no differences.”

The parliament’s tiny opposition minority, meanwhile, again accused Kocharian and his three-party governing coalition of seeking to muzzle what it again called the sole broadcaster not controlled by the authorities.

“The freedom of the rank-and-file citizens of our country is under attack,” said Raffi Hovannisian of the opposition Zharangutyun party.

“It is evident that Armenia’s political leadership has decided to close down Raffi Liberty,” charged Victor Dallakian, a veteran parliamentarian opposed to the government.

“If you are rejecting Radio Liberty, then you should also reject assistance provided by the United States,” Dallakian said, pointing to the fact that Armenia has been a leading per-capita recipient of US economic aid ever since its independence.

The opposition claims were again rejected by representatives of the parliament majority. “Claims that freedom of the media could die are not serious,” said the HHK’s Eduard Sharmazanov.

A representative of the pro-Kocharian Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), one of the HHK’s two junior coalition partners, was even more unwavering in advocating the draft laws. Aram Safarian said the government should disregard the domestic and international criticism to “establish law and order in our house” and ensure “equal competition” among media outlets.

The third coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), again avoided publicly expressing its position on the issue, in what amounted to tacit approval of the government bill. Like their colleagues from the HHK and the BHK, Dashnaktsutyun deputies present at Friday’s parliament session unanimously voted for it.

(Photolur photo: Gevorg Danielian.)
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