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By Ruzanna Stepanian
A senior member of the ruling Republican Party (HHK) blamed on Thursday its junior coalition partners for the Armenian government’s failure to push through parliament a controversial bill that would have severely restricted RFE/RL’s broadcasts in Armenia.

Armen Ashotian said the draft amendments to the laws on broadcasting and state duties would have become a law if most deputies representing the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) had taken part in the parliament vote.

The 131-member National Assembly lacked a single vote to make a quorum and pass the amendments in the final reading on Tuesday. The 40 or so BHK and Dashnaktsutyun lawmakers had overwhelmingly voted for the proposed changes in the first reading last week. But they unexpectedly turned up for the second-reading vote, stoking speculation that the country’s leadership is divided on the matter. Leaders of the two parties have declined to comment on this.

Ashotian did not endorse suggestions that the BHK and Dashnaktsutyun deliberately tried to discredit the HHK by holding it responsible for a bill which the Armenian opposition, media rights groups and Western governments believe would deal a massive blow to press freedom in Armenia.

“It was more of an organizational problem,” Ashotian told a news conference. “There was a lack of mobilization [on the part of Dashnaktsutyun and the BHK.]”

“I don’t have sufficient information to draw far-reaching conclusions. I am inclined to consider that to be the result of inadequate organizational work,” he said.

The proposed amendments, if passed, would have banned Armenian Public Radio from retransmitting the daily news program of RFE/RL’s Armenian service, which has not broadcasting frequency of its own. They would have also imposed hefty fees on private radio stations retransmitting RFE/RL or any other foreign broadcasts.

Critics of the bill say it was aimed at pulling the plug on the sole Armenian-language broadcaster not controlled by the authorities in Yerevan. Both President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian have repeatedly expressed their displeasure with RFE/RL’s coverage of elections and other political developments in Armenia.

Ashotian could not say if the government will re-introduce the controversial amendments to the parliament later this year. But he said the HHK continues to support them. “I don’t think that the fate of democracy in Armenia depends on the work of some private American radio station,” he added.
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