By Karine Kalantarian
Armenian journalists campaigning against a government-sponsored draft law on mass media received a decisive boost on Monday from the Council of Europe, which warned that the proposed legislation poses a threat to press freedom.
Experts from the Strasbourg-based human rights organization said the bill, which has sparked an unprecedented wave of criticism from the local media, falls short of European standards. The three experts arrived in Yerevan on Sunday to present their conclusions and hold meetings with Armenian editors, journalists and government officials.
Meeting with a group of journalists in Yerevan, they expressed concern, in particular, at a provision ordering the creation of a government agency in charge of "state oversight" of news organizations. Local media organizations similarly believe that it could lead to an effective state censorship of their reporting.
The agency would also be empowered to issue and revoke licenses without which media outlets would not be allowed to operate. The Armenian ministry of justice, the main author of the controversial bill, says the proposed replacement of their mandatory registration under current law, with a mere licensing would facilitate the creation of newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations.
But according to one of the visiting experts, Ramon Prieto Suares, the licensing requirement runs counter to the established practice in most Council of Europe countries. Soares said the government would thereby gain leverage against the media.
The bill, rejected by the overwhelming majority of Armenian newspapers and broadcasting organizations, does not specify in which cases the government agency can turn down a request for license. It instead stipulates that reporters wishing to interview officials would have to file a written request and await a reply for several days. Newspapers, in addition, would need officials' consent for publishing their photographs or cartoons.
In a statement issued last month, journalists from media outlets offering a wide variety of opinions urged the government not to submit the bill to the parliament for approval. The Yerevan Press Club, an independent media watchdog which was behind the initiative, has concluded in a report that the proposed law is "not compatible with the concept of freedom of speech."
In a bid to assuage media anger, President Robert Kocharian promised on February 20 that the proposed legislation will not be enacted without the Council of Europe's approval.
Meanwhile, senior Armenian lawmakers told the Strasbourg experts later on Monday that the bill in its current form will not be even considered by the parliament. Its deputy speaker, Tigran Torosian, was quoted as saying that he and most of his colleagues “fully share and accept” concerns voiced by the Council of Europe and the domestic journalist community. Torosian proposed that the parliament, government and media form a joint working group that would draw up a new media bill “acceptable to all parties” within three months. It too would need the Council’s approval before being put to parliament debate, he added.
The chairman of the parliament committee on science and education, Shavarsh Kocharian, said his panel is ready to discuss the idea.