They say that the package of sweeping draft amendments to an Armenian law on radio and television would enable the authorities in Yerevan to tighten their control over news reporting by local public and private broadcasters.
The government-drafted amendments are meant to regulate Armenia’s ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, which is due to be completed by July 2013. The process supposedly began in July 2010 with a highly controversial two-year suspension of fresh tenders for broadcasting license. The freeze was strongly criticized by Armenian media groups and international organizations.
In a joint statement issued ahead of the parliament debates, the Yerevan Press Club, the Committee to Support Freedom of Speech and the Internews media support group expressed serious concern about the bill.
They said they are particularly worried about amendments that would limit the number of TV stations in Yerevan and outside it to 18 and 9 respectively. There are more channels operating across Armenia at the moment.
“This means that in case of the bill’s adoption, the digitalization process will lead to a reduction in [electronic] media pluralism,” warned the three groups.
“Besides, the defined number of [broadcasting] licenses suggests that some TV companies would be stripped of their license. That in turn suggests that the entry of new companies into the market … would become unlikely,” said their statement.
It was an apparent reference to A1+, Armenia’s leading independent TV channel that had been controversially taken off the air in April 2002. A1+ announced last month its intention to contest broadcasting license tenders that are due to resume in the second half of this year.
The statement said that the proposed amendments do not set clear “terms and procedures” for the holding of those tenders. The signatories said the Armenian parliament should therefore postpone Friday’s debate on the bill and organize committee hearings on it instead.
However, the debate went ahead as planned, under a so-called urgent procedure that does not require the bill’s consideration by a relevant parliament committee. “Of course, it would have been much better if it was discussed and evaluated by our committee,” Artak Davtian, the pro-government chairman of the panel dealing with science, education and mass media, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The media groups’ concerns were shared not only by opposition deputies but also lawmakers representing the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a junior partner in the country’s governing coalition. Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK parliamentarian, specifically deplored the government’s desire to remove some existing provisions of the law.
Zohrabian singled out clauses that call for “pluralism” in television news programs and require the National Commission on Television and Radio to give detailed explanations for its possible decision to revoke a TV or radio station’s license.
Representatives of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party were even more critical, accusing the Armenian authorities of seeking to further limit media freedom on the airwaves. “The purpose of this measures is to make sure the authorities have possibilities of unlimited propaganda in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and presidential elections of 2013,” one of them, Armen Martirosian, charged.
Another Zharangutyun leader, Stepan Safarian, said the amendments pose a serious threat to A1+, which local and foreign media watchdogs hoped will return to the air this year. Safarian said the government should therefore “withdraw the bill and throw it into the trash bin.”
Even representatives of the largest parliament faction representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) did not rush to endorse the bill. Deputy parliament speaker Samvel Nikoyan, acknowledged that it contains “controversial provisions.” “I just don’t want us to adopt a law which we might need to amend in the future,” Nikoyan said, signaling his unease over the measure.