By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Astghik Bedevian
Armenia’s parliament debated on Thursday a controversial government bill that could end RFE/RL’s Armenian-language broadcasts amid opposition claims that the authorities are intent on further tightening their grip on eletronic media.
Faced with a mounting uproar from the opposition and civic groups, senior representatives of the ruling coalition made conflicting interpretations of a government proposal to ban the state-controlled Armenian Public Television and Radio (HHHR) from retransmitting programs of foreign broadcasters.
RFE/RL’s Armenian Service primarily relies on the HHHR’s radio frequencies to air its daily news programs across Armenia. Some of those programs are also aired by private radio stations mainly covering Yerevan and surrounding regions. Under another legal amendment tabled by the government, those stations would have to pay the hefty fees to the state for such retransmission.
Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian declared at the end of several hours of heated debates that the proposed retransmission ban does not apply to RFE/RL. He argued that under Armenia’s law on television and radio, only those media organizations that have an official license to air TV or radio programs on their own frequencies are considered to be “broadcasters.”
“I am more than convinced that Radio Liberty has nothing to do with this bill,” Torosian told lawmakers. “Radio Liberty has no license to engage in broadcasting activities in Armenia and is technically not a broadcaster,” he said, adding that claims to the opposite are a “provocation.”
However, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian did seem to claim the opposite as he presented the amendments to the parliament earlier in the day. He made it clear that RFE/RL would no longer be able to use the Public Radio frequencies on a contractual basis.
This was also the point made during the ensued debates by deputies representing the Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partners. Samvel Nikoyan, a senior HHK lawmaker, said the HHHR puts RFE/RL’s Armenian service in a “privileged position” by re-broadcasting its popular news programs. The government-controlled broadcaster should discontinue the practice, he said.
“I wonder if European public TV and radio companies like BBC and Deutsche Welle would allocate or resell airtime to media outlets of other countries,” said Aram Safarian, who spoke on behalf of another governing party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK).
The third coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), did not officially express its position on the bill but is understood to support it. A member of Dashnaktsutyun’s parliament faction, Artsvik Minasian, said the bill, if passed, will prevent the HHHR management from making “arbitrary decisions” and ensure that HHHR operate “under the instructions of state bodies.”
“It’s time to stop catering for the interests of foreign states,” Minasian said in an apparent reference to the fact that RFE/RL is funded by the U.S. Congress.
Ironically, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian accused RFE/RL in late 1994 of maintaining close with Dashnaktsutyun, then an outlawed opposition party, when he stopped the retransmission of its Armenian-language programs by state radio. President Robert Kocharian lifted the ban shortly after he replaced Ter-Petrosian in 1998. But in recent years, Kocharian and his most likely successor, have increasingly criticized RFE/RL’s coverage of elections and other political developments in Armenia which they say casts their administration only in a negative light.
However, opposition politicians as well as local and international press freedom watchdogs believe that RFE/RL has been the only Armenian-language broadcaster not controlled by the Armenian authorities ever since the highly controversial closure of the independent TV channel A1+ five years ago.
The two opposition parties represented in the recently elected National Assembly strongly condemned the draft amendments during the debates, saying that they are specifically directed against the U.S.-funded broadcaster. They also accused the authorities of seeking to gain complete control of the airwaves ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
“On the line is the standing, freedom and future of our country,” Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the Zharangutyun party, said, urging the majority leaders to withdraw the bill. He said it calls into question the credibility of the governing coalition’s pledge to democratize Armenia.
“We had shut down A1+ for [the presidential election of] 2003,” said Armen Martirosian, another Zharangutyun parliamentarian. “In 2007, we will shut down Radio Liberty for [the presidential election of] 2008. What will we do for [the next election due in] 2013? Who will we shut down? Will we shut down people?”
“We believe that Radio Liberty broadcasts are necessary for freedom of speech and the development of democracy in Armenia,” said Hovannes Markarian of the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party.
“They would use the closure of [Radio] Liberty to expand activities of government-controlled media outlets during the presidential elections [of 2008,]” charged Victor Dallakian, a veteran opposition lawmaker not affiliated with any party. “Because Liberty is the only electronic media outlet which is not controlled by the authorities.”
Pro-government deputies rejected the accusations, denying any political motives behind the bill submitted to the ongoing emergency session of the assembly at a very short notice. “Radio Liberty covered the May parliamentary elections and we had no problem with that,” said the HHK’s Nikoyan.
“We all listen to Radio Liberty, but I don’t think that it is the only source of objective information,” said Mkrtich Minasian, another Republican lawmaker.
Majority members also said that RFE/RL’s Armenian service would be able to use private radio frequencies for airing its programs. Their opposition colleagues countered that the government could easily pressure private radio stations into refusing such broadcasts. The exorbitant fees sought by the government would further discourage them from dealing with RFE/RL, Zharangutyun and Orinats Yerkir deputies said.
The parliament is scheduled to vote on the bill on Friday.