By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Astghik Bedevian
The Armenian government unexpectedly failed to push through parliament on Tuesday controversial draft legislation that could have led to a de facto ban on Armenian-language broadcasts of RFE/RL.
The National Assembly dominated by government supporters lacked only one vote to make a quorum and pass a package of relevant legal amendments in the final reading. Failure by some pro-government lawmakers to take part in the crucial vote and its boycott by the opposition minority were decisive for the surprise development.
Under Armenian law, the parliament passes laws by a simple majority in votes involving most of its 131 members. Only 65 deputies chose to make their final judgment on the government bill, 63 of them voting for it and the two others abstaining.
The 15 or so opposition deputies were about to vote against the bill when one of them, Victor Dallakian, noticed a worse-than-usual attendance of Tuesday’s parliament session by majority members. Dallakian, who is not affiliated with any party, persuaded his colleagues representing the opposition Zharangutyun and Orinats Yerkir parties to opt for a boycott instead. As a result, they blocked the draft amendments that would ban state radio from retransmitting of news programs of foreign broadcasters and impose heavy fees on private networks engaged in such retransmission.
“Thank God, my calculation proved right,” Dallakian said afterwards. “I congratulate Radio Liberty. The parliament minority has proved that what matters is quality, and not quantity. This will be a lesson for the parliament majority, which will have to respect one of the most important rights, liberty.”
The proposed changes are widely believed to be directed against RFE/RL’s Armenian service that has long been using state radio’s broadcasting frequency to make its popular news programs accessible to the vast majority of Armenians. The Armenian opposition and local and international human rights organizations believe that they would further restrict press freedom in the country.
Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian and other senior members of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) have insisted all along that the retransmission ban would not be applicable to RFE/RL. However, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian indicated the opposite as the parliament wrapped up heated debates on the issue on Monday.
The differing interpretations are construed by some observers as an indication of differences within Armenia’s leadership over the future of RFE/RL broadcasts which President Robert Kocharian believes feature too much criticism of his administration. The failure by some pro-government deputies to show up for the final vote on the bill may have been another sign of such disagreements.
Particularly glaring was the absence of the majority of deputies affiliated with the HHK’s junior coalition partners, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Only 11 of the 25 BHK legislators took part in the vote and backed the bill. One of them, Aram Safarian, said six of his absent colleagues did not show up for “health reasons.”
“I have no information about the others,” Safarian told RFE/RL. “You should ask them about their motives for not voting,” he added.
Dashnaktsutyun attendance of the session was even poorer, with only two of its 16 deputies deciding to vote. One of them, former Deputy Labor Minister Artsvik Minasian, backed the proposed restrictions, while the other, Alvard Petrosian, abstained. The latter had voted for the bill, along with virtually all other members of Dashnaktsutyun’s parliament faction, in the first reading on Friday.
Petrosian explained on Tuesday that she had mistakenly pressed a wrong button and supports continued RFE/RL broadcasts. “But I don’t think that our life, our freedom of speech, sense of liberty hinges on Radio Liberty and that if we closed Radio Liberty Armenia would be destroyed,” she said. “I just think that if we listened to Liberty in Soviet times, we should also be able to listen to it now.”
Dashnaktsutyun has still not expressed its official position on the amendments in question.
Also absent were six deputies from the HHK. Another Republican lawmaker, former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, abstained during the vote.
Leaders of the HHK faction declined to comment on the resulting fiasco. “I take this as a fait accompli,” said its secretary, Samvel Nikoyan. “This bill did not garner sufficient votes and was not passed. Period.”
It was not immediately clear whether the government will re-introduce the bill and, if so, whether it will call another emergency session of the National Assembly or wait until the start of the parliament’s regular autumn session in September. In the latter case, the bill would have to discussed and approved by a relevant parliament committee before being again put to the vote.
Opposition minority leaders, meanwhile, welcomed what they see as a boost to free speech. “The fight for liberty continues,” said Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian. “We thwarted the first attempt at capital punishment and must continue our fight until liberty prevails in our country.”
“This was a good example of our joint work aimed defense of free speech,” said Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian. “I want to hail all those people who stood by liberty. As you saw, even in the majority there were people who did not vote.”
“This is a victory for liberty,” agreed another Orinats Yerkir deputy, Mher Shahgeldian. “This is extremely important for freedom of the media, human rights and the development of democracy in Armenia.”