Armenia’s state human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, gave on Friday a largely positive assessment of a recently enacted government bill which critics say precludes the liberalization of Armenian broadcast media.
The Armenian government pushed a package of amendments to the Law on Television and Radio through parliament in June despite strong concerns voiced by local and international media watchdogs. They say the amendments will allow the government to retain its strong influence on the news coverage of virtually all Armenian broadcasters.
The United States and the European Union have also expressed concern over the bill, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raising the matter with President Serzh Sarkisian during a July visit to Yerevan. Clinton said he expressed readiness to make fresh changes in the law.
Last month, Sarkisian assigned Harutiunian to form a working group of state officials and media experts tasked with drafting those changes. Officials have made clear that those changes, if passed by parliament, will not apply to the upcoming tenders for virtually all broadcasting frequencies available in the country. The new licenses to be issued by the National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) will be valid for ten years.
Harutiunian could not explain the rationale for again amending the law. He said he will ask Sarkisian about it.
“I have no concerns regarding this law, but it would be desirable to put there some mechanisms that would reduce possibilities of its arbitrary interpretation,” the ombudsman told a news conference. That would also make the “political will” of the Armenian authorities less important for the fairness and objectivity of frequency tenders, he said.
Many in Armenia hoped that the tenders, controversially suspended by the authorities two years ago, will be an opportunity for A1+, the country’s leading independent TV station taken off the air in 2002, to resume broadcasts. The A1+ owner, Mesrop Movsesian, said recently, however, that he does not expect to get a new license and predicted another “imitation of a contest.”