By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian government pushed through parliament Friday a controversial bill that could lead to severely restrict RFE/RL’s broadcasts in Armenia and is seen by local opposition and civic groups as a serious blow to press freedom.
The National Assembly voted by 79 to 16, with one abstention, to pass in the first of two readings the bill taking the form of two legal amendments. One of them would 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.
They will now have to pay more than $200 in taxes each time they retransmit a program produced by a foreign media organization. That is 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.
The deputies who approved the bill are mainly affiliated with Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partners, the Prosperous Armenia Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). They are expected to pass it in the second, final reading early next week.
Voting against were deputies representing the opposition Zharangutyun, Orinats Yerkir and Dashink parties as well as two independent lawmakers. The Zharangutyun and Orinats Yerkir factions condemned the bill during Thursday’s heated parliament debates, saying that it is aimed at muzzling what they call the only Armenian-language broadcaster not controlled by the government.
Leaders of the pro-government majority insisted that the proposed legislation is not directed against RFE/RL. But they admitted that the multinational broadcasted funded by the U.S. Congress should not be able to use HHHR’s broadcasting frequency anymore. Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian also made this clear as he presented the bill to lawmakers on Thursday.
“The Public Television and Radio must provide the state and citizen with information reflecting public interests and must not engage in this kind of entrepreneurial activity,” Danielian said. “Namely, ceding its radio frequency to any foreign TV or radio company.”
Still, parliament speaker Tigran Torosian insisted on Friday that the changes do not apply to RFE/RL because it does not have a broadcasting license and can therefore not be deemed a “broadcaster.” He repeated his arguments at a meeting with Anthony Godfrey, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Yerevan who expressed serious concern at the possible end of RFE/RL broadcasts in Armenia.
“I told the speaker that the United States is very proud of the work that Radio Liberty has done over its long history and that if such a law was directed against Radio Liberty, we would not understand how such a law would be in support of Armenia’s own goals of democratization,” Godfrey told reporters. He said Torosian “suggested that we study more closely the draft legislation.”
Godfrey refused to be drawn on what the U.S. might do if the state-run and private radio stations refuse to retransmit RFE/RL Armenian service programs. I don’t take hypothetical questions,” he said. “But I did express our concern to the speaker and he was very open to hearing our concerns.”
Meanwhile, leading Armenian media associations and other civic groups continued to voice alarm at the future of RFE/RL activities in the country. More than a dozen of them issued a joint statement shortly before the passage of the amendments.
“The analysis of the bills submitted to the National Assembly demonstrates that they are primarily directed against Radio Liberty’s Armenian service, the only broadcast media outlet not controlled by the Armenian authorities, because their passage would effectively end re-broadcasts of that service’s programs on Armenian radio channels,” the statement said. It warned that the recently elected legislature risks turning itself into an “enemy of democracy and media freedom.”
Among signatories of the statement were the Yerevan Press Club (YPC), the Armenian Helsinki Committee as well as the Armenian branches of international organizations like Transparency International and the Open Society Institute.
“These are politically motivated bills sent from 26 Baghramian avenue,” YPC expert Mesrop Harutiunian charged, referring to the Yerevan address of President Robert Kocharian’s office.
Condemnations also continued to pour in from opposition parties not represented in the parliament. Several of them plan to hold a joint rally in Yerevan next week to demand continued RFE/RL broadcasts.
“This is a disgraceful development and we must fight against it,” said Aram Sarkisian of the radical Hanrapetutyun party. “The public must take to the street to fight for its right to receive information, which is what we will try to organize along with our opposition partners.”
The People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) backed the initiative. “This affair must concern not only political forces,” HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian told RFE/RL. “The entire society must rise up to defend Radio Liberty.”
The issue was also the main theme of a weekly rally held in the city’s Freedom Square on Friday by another opposition group, Aylentrank. Its outspoken leader, Nikol Pashinian, urged about 200 people attending it to gather in the same place on Saturday and Sunday evenings for a public listening of RFE/RL’s main Armenian-language news program. Pashinian said Aylentrank plans to stage more such protests in the course of next week.
According to independent research, from 15 to 18 percent of the Armenian population over 15 years of age listens to RFE/RL's Armenian service every week. Respondents rate the radio the first- or second-most popular station along with Armenian public radio.