A senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation has expressed concern about a controversial bill which Armenian press freedom groups say would enable the government to tighten its grip on broadcast media.
The Armenian parliament approved in the first reading on May 20 a package of government-drafted legal amendments regulating Armenia’s ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, which is due to be completed by July 2013. Its pro-government majority dismissed strong objections voiced by opposition lawmakers and local media associations.
The latter are particularly worried about amendments that would reduce the number of TV stations operating in the country. They also say the amendments do not set clear criteria for the granting of broadcasting licenses in supposedly competitive tenders.
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Vienna-based representative on freedom of the media, echoed these and other concerns in a statement issued late on Wednesday. “If adopted in its present form, the law would not guarantee pluralism in the broadcasting sector. The draft also fails to offer a solid basis for the upcoming process of digitalization,” Mijatovic said.
“A good draft can safeguard independence of the broadcasters, thus promoting media freedom and at the same time stimulate a competitive and economically vibrant broadcasting sector in Armenia,” she added.
The statement said Mijatovic’s office looked into the amendments and submitted a set of written recommendations to the Armenian authorities four days after the bill’s approval by the National Assembly. It urged the Armenian authorities to eliminate “shortcomings” identified by OSCE media experts.
In particular, the experts believe that Armenia’s National Commission on Television and Radio would not have to “explain any rejections of applications for broadcasting licenses.” They also object to the authorities’ desire to limit the number of broadcast channels “without any explanation.”
Mijatovic said President Serzh Sarkisian assured her during her recent visit to Yerevan that “the recommendations of her Office and those from civil society would be taken into account when finalizing the law.” She also welcomed parliamentary hearings on the issue held last week.
Whether the bill will undergo major changes as a result of those hearings is not yet clear. Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who initiated the public discussion, also misgivings about it during parliament debates earlier in May.
Virtually all television and radio stations across Armenia rarely air criticism of the government and especially he president of the republic. The only TV channel that had regularly broadcast reports critical of the authorities, A1+, was controversially taken off the air in April 2002. Some media experts regard the government bill as a serious blow to A1+’s chances of winning a new license in frequency tenders due in the second half of this year.