By Emil Danielyan
A leading international human rights organization has strongly criticized controversial government-drafted amendments to two Armenian laws which it believes could “effectively ban” future broadcasts of RFE/RL and thereby further restrict freedom of the media in Armenia.
“These new laws clearly restrict access to a crucial independent news source for many Armenians and deal a serious blow to RFE/RL and to freedom of the media in general,” Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a weekend statement. “The parliament should under no circumstances pass this bill in the second reading.”
The New York-based group said the proposed ban on retransmission of foreign broadcasts by Armenian state television and radio and heavy fees for private networks engaging in such broadcasts “appear to specifically target RFE/RL’s Armenian service.”
“By passing these laws, Armenia risks violating its international commitments to freedom of expression and the media,” said Cartner. She specifically pointed to an article of the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantees the right “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
Cartner also implied that continued RFE/RL broadcasts, which are accessible to the vast majority of Armenians thanks to their retransmission by state radio, are essential for the freedom and fairness of next year’s Armenian presidential election. “As Armenia prepares for presidential elections in 2008, the world will certainly be watching to see if the government respects freedom of the media and other freedoms necessary for a free and fair vote,” she said.
HRW argued that although Armenia has a “vibrant print media,” its government maintains “close control over the much more accessible broadcast media.” It cited in this regard the effective closure in 2002 of A1+, the only local TV channel that regularly aired criticism of President Robert Kocharian and his administration.
The government bills have also been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti. In a statement last week, Haraszti said they infringe Armenia’s commitments to safeguard media pluralism and access to information, and called on the Armenian authorities to drop them.