YPC Weekly Newsletter

2007


THE NEW SET OF AMENDMENTS DIRECTED AGAINST FREEDOM OF SPEECH

On June 27 the extraordinary session of the RA National Assembly, summoned
by the initiative of the RA President, was opened. Its agenda, besides other
issues, included a package of draft laws “On Introducing Amendment to the RA
Law ‘On Television and Radio’” and “On introducing an Addition to the RA Law
‘On State Duty’”, prepared by the RA Government. On June 29 the draft laws were
adopted in the first hearing by the majority of votes, cast by the RA NA deputies.

In the amendment to Article 28 of the Law “On Television and Radio” it is proposed
to prohibit the activities of other broadcasters on the frequencies held by
the Public TV and Radio Company, while the provision in force allows for such
activities with the consent of the Council of the Public TV and Radio Company.
The proposed change is argumented by the authors by the special status of the
Public TV and Radio Company, the activities of which must be subordinated to
public interest solely and “cannot be combined with the activities of other
broadcasting organizations, having their own purposes”.

The addition to Article 19 of the Law “On State Duty” stipulates that from
now for “each issuance of a program cycle of the national editorial office or
a service of a foreign media by the TV and Radio companies of the Republic of
Armenia” the state budget must receive an amount equal to “70 base duties” (70,000
AMD or over $ 200). The justification of the amendment says that since the broadcasting
of TV and radio programs “is in the domain of competitive regulation”, the proposed
measure enables “ensuring equal competition terms”. At the same time it is noted
that the legislation prohibits foreign media from having a license and having
independent broadcasting of TV and radio programs, and the amendment proposed
is also regulating the legal relations regarding the activities of foreign media
in the RA.

Meanwhile, the amendments introduced to the consideration of the parliament
are a source of great concern for media and media experts. In particular, there
is an opinion that the implicit purpose of the legislative initiatives of the
RA Government is to stop the broadcasts of the Armenian Service of Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty. The draft laws proposed actually ban its broadcasts on
the Public Radio of Armenia, performed by a contract, and in future it is quite
probable that private radio companies, with the pretext of extremely high state
duty, will refuse to give air to the Armenian Service of Radio Liberty. It should
be noted that similar fate may be looming also on the programs of BBC, EuroNews
and Deutsche Welle, broadcast in Armenia.

According to “Internews” Media Support NGO, published on June 27, the
amendment to the Law “On State Duty” is not sufficiently justified. In particular,
“Internews” notes, unequal competition terms exist between the broadcasters
producing Armenian content and the ones who fully or partially rebroadcast the
programs of foreign TV and radio companies. The most privileged is the situation
of those companies in Armenia that rebroadcast the foreign TV channels under
interstate and intergovernmental agreements. These TV companies also often rebroadcast
advertising slots in foreign languages, thus violating the RA Law “On Advertising”.
The justification as presented by the authors of the draft do not take into
account the fact that the national editorial offices or services of foreign
media create local content which, as a rule, is up to international standards,
hence contributing to the better quality of TV and radio programs in Armenia,
“Internews” stresses. Besides, the draft law proposed by the RA Government corrupts
the legal meaning of the state duty: it is applied to provide state revenue
as remuneration for services, provided by the state bodies to the population
or the economic subjects, and not to regulate the competition.

On June 28 the draft laws were criticized by the OSCE Representative on Freedom
of the Media Miklos Haraszti. “As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is currently
the only foreign media outlet using the Armenian Public Radio frequency, the
adoption of the amendments would amount to a ban on their programmes in Armenia”,
the letter of Miklos Haraszti to the Chairman of the RA National Assembly Tigran
Torosian said. “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is an alternative source of
information in Armenia, providing a diversity of opinion that is especially
needed during election periods”, Miklos Haraszti noted. The OSCE Representative
on Freedom of the Media urged the parliament of the country to drop the draft
laws proposed, as they are “incompatible with OSCE commitments to safeguard
pluralism and the free flow of information in the media”.

In its statement of June 29 “Asparez” Journalist’s Club of Gyumri qualified
the legislative initiative of the Government as “directed against the broadcasts”
of the Armenian Service of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and as a “yet
another episode in the consistent state policy of suppressing freedom of speech,
press and expression”.

Several political parties spoke against the draft laws, too – in particular,
“Republic”, Social Democratic Hnchak Party as well as two parties represented
in the parliament, “Heritage” and “Orinats Yerkir”. These parties also qualified
the documents as an attempt to shut down the Armenian Service of Radio Liberty
and to restrict the freedom of expression.

On June 29 the Journalists Union of Armenia hosted a press-conference of a
number of NGOs, membering in Partnership for Open Society initiative. Criticism
of the draft laws proposed by the Government was voiced at the press conference
by the Yerevan Press Club Expert Mesrop Harutiunian, the Chairman of the Committee
to Protect Freedom of Expression Ashot Melikian, the Head of Legal Department
of “Internews” David Sandukhchian.

On the same day, June 29, these organizations made the following statement:

“The draft laws on “Introducing Amendment to the RA Law ‘On Television and
Radio’” and “On Introducing an Addition to the RA Law ‘On State Duty’”, presented
at the extraordinary session of the National Assembly upon the initiative of
the RA Government, signify that the Armenian authorities are consistent in adhering
to the vicious policy of the recent years, aimed at restricting and suppressing
the freedom of expression and media.

For many times already has the Government hastily submitted draft media-related
laws to the National Assembly – in secrecy, without consulting the civil society,
media representatives, experts, even without the opinion of the appropriate
committee of the National Assembly. What issues, vital for the country and the
society, are these two draft laws to solve that they had to be necessarily considered
at an extraordinary session, instead of being included into the agenda of the
ordinary session, following all the procedures that the law provides for? The
draft authors have not presented any convincing arguments as to the urgency
of their adoption at this very moment.

This way of acting, when hasty amendments are proposed in broadcasting legislation,
with no heed for the domain specifics and the legislation rationale, is becoming
a tradition: it suffices to remember that in September 2006, too, the Government
presented to the National Assembly the draft law “On Introducing Amendments
and Additions to the RA Law ‘On Television and Radio’” with the same haste.
The draft caused the dissatisfaction of the journalistic community and was ultimately
rejected by the NA. However, in February 2007, the Government had another unacceptable
draft law passed, ignoring all the proposals made.

The analysis of the draft laws, presented to the NA today, shows that they
are primarily directed against the only broadcast medium out of the control
of the RA authorities – the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,
because their adoption in essence will stop the broadcasting of the programs
of the Service on Armenian radio waves. The adoption of these draft laws will
also damage the reputation of the newly-elected National Assembly that will
have displayed itself as the adversary of democracy, of freedom of expression
by the very first laws passed.

We have always insisted that legislative changes in this sphere be made systemically,
according to a unified concept, and hence we call on the RA NA deputies not
to vote on the drafts presented by the Government and to hold public hearing
of the legislative package that seeks to reform the sphere.”

The statement is open for signatures.