The Armenian government will enact no further changes in a controversial law on broadcasting criticized by domestic media watchdogs as well as foreign governments and human rights bodies, an official said on Wednesday.
Avetis Berberian, a member of a government task force that drafted sweeping amendments to the law, insisted that the authorities have done their best to address recommendations made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Armenia’s leading media associations.
“Several proposals were not accepted for technical, financial, political, military-political considerations. Right now our financial and technical capacities do not allow us to fully accept their recommendations,” Berberian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. He did not elaborate.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service earlier in the day, Raul de Luzenberger, the head of the European Union Delegation in Armenia, seemed to indicate that the government may still amend the law further despite its passage by the National Assembly in the final reading last week.
“We welcome the fact that the government has launched a public consultation on this and the improvements made to the existing legislation,” he said. “At the same time we welcome the willingness of the authorities of the Republic of Armenia to continue the discussion with the civil society, the OSCE and the Council of Europe to further amend the law and bring it further in line with the international standards.”
Berberian made clear, however, that there will be no more changes in the law any time soon. “What was deemed necessary has already been incorporated into the package and the parliament has already adopted it in the final reading,” he said.
Government officials have said all along that the controversial amendments are necessary for expediting Armenia’s transition to mandatory digital broadcasting. Local media groups and other critics believe, however, that their real aim is to maintain a de facto government control over the news coverage of virtually all TV and radio stations.
“It can definitely said that instead of improving the regulatory framework for this sphere, this law puts more restrictions going against freedom of expression,” said Boris Navasardian of the Yerevan Press Club.
Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Vienna-based representative on media freedom, likewise said on Tuesday that the final version of the bill “fails to promote broadcast pluralism in the digital era.” She pointed to provisions reducing the number of broadcast channels, making all forms of broadcasting subject to state licensing and setting what she sees as ambiguous procedures for the establishment of private TV and radio channels.
Ian Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, voiced similar concerns in a June 10 statement. “We urge the Armenian government and National Assembly to further amend the legislation, taking into account the OSCE’s recommendations, in order to make the legislation consonant with international standards and OSCE commitments,” he said.
Piling more pressure on Yerevan, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) added its voice to the criticism late on Tuesday. Its director for Europe and Central Asia, Holly Cartner, urged President Serzh Sarkisian not to sign the law.
“We urge you to use your discretionary power and veto the amendments to the Law On Television and Radio,” Cartner said in a letter to Sarkisian posted on the HRW website. “We strongly hope that the National Assembly will heed the concerns of Armenia's civil society, the OSCE, and others and make the necessary changes to bring the legislation fully into line with Armenia's international obligations.”
As well as adding new provisions meant to regulate the digitalization process, the government bill essentially removed a clause obligating the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) to substantiate rejection of broadcasting license applications. The government claimed to have accepted a key recommendation of the critics when it added language obligating the HRAH to “properly substantiate and justify” its decisions.
But as Berberian stressed, the regulatory body formed by the president and parliament will only have to explain the choice of winners of license tenders. “When you substantiate the selection of a winner, you automatically say why others have lost,” he reasoned. “So there is no need to explain why other applicants have lost.”
According to Navasardian, this means unsuccessful license applicants will find it practically impossible to get Armenian courts to overturn HRAH decisions. “You will be able to challenge the results of tenders in court but you will hardly achieve your goal,” he told RFE/RL.