By Nane AtshemianArmenia’s leading media associations have criticized additional constitutional amendments put forward by the authorities, saying that they would fail to ensure the independence of a powerful state body that regulates commercial broadcasting.
In a joint statement issued late on Wednesday, they said President Robert Kocharian must no longer have the exclusive right to choose members of the National Commission on Television (HRAH) which pulled the plug on the country’s main independent television three years ago. The seven signatories of the statement, among them the Yerevan Press Club and the Armenian Union of Journalists, accused the authorities of reneging on their promises given to the Council of Europe.
Under the existing law, all nine members of the body, which issues broadcasting licenses on the supposedly competitive basis, are appointed by the Armenian president. This provision is widely blamed for the fact that virtually all television and radio stations operating in Armenia are loyal to and controlled by the authorities.
The Council of Europe has been pushing for legislative changes that would give the Armenian parliament a major role in the HRAH’s formation. Kocharian and his governing coalition pledged to add a relevant clause to their package of constitutional amendments. The revised draft amendments sent by them to Strasbourg last week would empower the National Assembly to endorse or reject members of the commission nominated by the president.
The seven media groups believe that the proposed change “does not provide for the best way of ensuring media freedom, independence and pluralism.” Their statement said the HRAH will be reasonably independent only if its members are selected by the parliament and then endorsed by the president.
“The pluralistic environment of the National Assembly is much better for the nomination of various candidates,” said Mesrop Harutiunian, a Yerevan Press Club expert.
The statement also protested the fact the authorities plan no changes in the formation of the governing board of the Armenian Public Television and Radio, the main mouthpiece of government propaganda. It said the agreement on constitutional reform signed by Armenian officials and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission last month clearly referred to more than one body regulating activities of electronic media.
“Armenia’s law on television and radio mentions two regulatory bodies: the governing board of the Public television and the commission regulating all private networks,” argued Harutiunian.
“We hope that the Venice Commission will be responsive to the statement by the media organizations,” said Astghik Gevorgian, chairwoman of the Union of Journalists.
The statement also demanded a constitutional provision that would explicitly ban any form of media censorship in Armenia.