The Armenian parliament approved in the first reading on Thursday a controversial bill which local press freedom groups say would enable the government to tighten its grip on broadcast media.
The National Assembly passed it despite serious concerns expressed not only by opposition lawmakers but also some members of its pro-government majority, including speaker Hovik Abrahamian.
“I understand concerns of my colleagues because we received that bill a bit late,” Abrahamian said on Wednesday during parliament debates on the package of government-drafted amendments to an Armenian law on television and radio. He referred to the government’s desire to push them through the assembly under a so-called accelerated procedure that precludes their discussion by a relevant parliament committee.
“But since the [majority] Republican Party faction will be voting for this draft, I suggest that we pass it in the first reading, but only the condition that we organize next week hearings in this auditorium,” he added.
The proposed amendments are meant to regulate Armenia’s ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, which is due to be completed by July 2013. The process began in July 2010 with a highly controversial two-year suspension of fresh tenders for broadcasting license.
In a joint statement issued ahead of the debates, Armenia’s three leading media associations expressed serious concern about the bill. They are particularly worried about amendments that would limit the number of TV stations in Yerevan and outside it to 18 and 9 respectively. There are more channels operating across Armenia at the moment.
The statement also said that the amendments do not set clear “terms and procedures” for the holding of supposedly competitive tenders for broadcasting license. The Armenian parliament should therefore not pass the bill in its current form, it said.
Both Abrahamian and Deputy Economy Minister Mushegh Tumasian, who represented the government during the debates, assured lawmakers that the bill may still undergo major changes as a result of the planned hearings.
The issue was high on the agenda of this week’s visit to Yerevan by Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on freedom and media of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “It is essential that the digital switchover is carried out in a transparent manner and that the tendering procedures are made public well in advance to ensure broadcast pluralism,” an OSCE statement quoted her as telling President Serzh Sarkisian on Tuesday.
“It is essential that the legislation to be adopted grants access to diverse information and high quality programs,” Mijatovic said. She welcomed the Armenian authorities’ stated readiness to “consider” an OSCE assessment of the bill that was made recently.