On February 16 the RA Constitution Court heard the issue of compliance of a number of provisions of the “RA National Assembly Regulations” to the Main Law of the country. This refers to the provisions, committing the public TV and radio to broadcast parliamentary programs. An appeal on the matter was made on December 28, 2006 by the Armenian President Robert Kocharian. The Constitutional Court accepted it for consideration on January 9, 2007.
As reported, the problem of covering the parliamentary activities was raised in March 2006, when the Chairman of the Council of Public TV and Radio Company Alexan Harutiunian made a written request to the NA Chairman with a proposal to reconsider the relations between PTRC and the parliament. In the opinion of the Chairman of the PTRC Council, the need to abolish this legislative commitment was due to the controversial situation that the Public TV and Radio Company found itself in, after it became a full-fledged member of the European Broadcasting Union in July 2005. On the one hand, the statutes of the organization oblige the national broadcaster to retain editorial independence and the right to use air at its own discretion, on the other – the provisions of the RA NA Regulations (adopted on February 20, 2002) actually impede the implementation of these requirements. The letter of the PTRC Council Chairman was considered at the meeting of the Parliament Speaker with representatives of parliamentary factions and groups, where it was decided that no amendments would be introduced to the NA Regulations regarding the transmission of parliamentary programs. This issue was not reflected in any way in the package of amendments to the RA NA Regulations, adopted in the first hearing on October 3, 2006 (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, September 29 – October 5, 2006).
At the session of February 16 the Court recognized the following provisions of the "RA National Assembly Regulations" to be contradicting the RA Constitution: on mandatory broadcasting of the sessions of statements by the deputies and question-and-answer sessions with the Government at the parliament on specific days and hours on First Channel of Public Television of Armenia (clauses 3 and 4 of Article 35); on broadcasting of the open sessions of the NA on live air of the Public Radio of Armenia, on the obligatory transmission of “Parliamentary Week” TV program cycle on Sundays at 21.00 on the PTA First Channel, and on the production by the Public TV and Radio Company of the parliamentary programs to be broadcast (clauses 2, 4 and 5 of Article 112). Besides, clause “e” of Article 49 was recognized to be contradicting the Constitution. The clause lists the decision of broadcasting parliamentary sessions on live air or recorded among the decisions that the parliament is entitled to make for organizing its activities.
In the justification of the Court decision it is noted, in particular, that the amended RA Constitution (adopted in a referendum of November 27, 2005) “posed new demands to the guarantees of freedom and independent activities of the media”. Ensuring these guarantees imposes on the RA National Assembly the task of “reconsidering in a context and harmonizing with the Constitution” the RA Laws “On Television and Radio”, “On Mass Communication”, “RA NA Regulations”, and the relevant provisions of other laws, referring to this problem. According to the Constitutional Court, in the selection of any of the possible ways of solving the issue of covering the parliamentary activities, “legal guarantees should be created not to endanger the ensurance of transparency and political plurality in the practice of public service broadcasting”. The Court believes that in the solution of this issue, the NA should primarily be guided by Articles 27, 83.2 of the RA Constitution, as well as the stipulations of Recommendation R(96)10 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, the Explanatory Memorandum to it, “Public Service Broadcasting” Recommendation 1641(2004)1 of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
The decision of the Constitutional Court brought diverse comment from media and political forces. Thus, in an interview to “Aravot” daily (February 20, 2007), the RA NA Speaker Tigran Torosian called the solution proposed by the Court “debatable”, “not best”, “incomplete” and “unprepared”. “The coverage of the NA activities cannot be considered an infringement of freedom of press or media. Maybe the way of doing it – through an agreement or tender – can be debated”, Tigran Torosian said. In his opinion, the issue of incompliance with the Constitution is questionable, “because these are very specific broadcasts”. The situation formed as a result of Court decision, when a number of provisions of the NA Regulations are abolished, but the requirement of parliamentary program broadcasting remains in the RA Law “On Television and Radio”, was assessed by Tigran Torosian as “somewhat strange”.
In the opinion of the Chairman of the People’s Party of Armenia Stepan Demirchian, stated on February 20 in an interview to Radio “Free Europe”/Radio “Liberty” Armenian Service, the ruling of the Court and “the rise of tariffs for paid air primarily aim at restricting the promotion opportunities for opposition in a pre-election period, including the presidential elections”.
“It is not a secret that President Kocharian cannot hear any critical words to his address. If you remember, two days before “A1+” was shut down he had announced to the journalists that he hears unpleasant remarks about himself not only on this TV channel, but also in “Parliamentary Hour” program on the PTA First Channel, in the three-minute statements of the opposition. The biting phrases of the representatives of opposition factions apparently were getting on Mr. Kocharian’s nerves”, the Chief Editor of “Aravot” daily wrote in his article “Pocketed by the President As Always” (“Aravot”, February 20, 2007). George Bush and Jacques Chirac do not like to be publicly criticized either, Aram Abrahamian noted, however, in their countries there are state and public mechanisms, depriving the presidents of a chance to refuse air to their critics, and in particular, these countries do not have a Constitutional Court, so willing to grant every wish of the head of the state. But there is one in Armenia, the Chief Editor of “Aravot” continues, and when the President addresses this pocket court it gives a salute and follows the instruction. According to “Aravot”, the meaning of the Court ruling is that the National Assembly has no right to induce any media to broadcast certain material, because this allegedly restricts the freedom of expression. “This concern with freedom of expression is really very touching. It turns out that the First Channel (and in particular, “Haylur” newscast), eating taxpayers’ money, are absolutely free in glorifying Kocharian and denigrating his opponents, but it is the broadcasting of MPs’ statements that restricts their free thinking”, Aram Abrahamian believes.