YPC Weekly Newsletter

2008


STATEMENT OF YEREVAN PRESS CLUB ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND PRESS IN ARMENIA

On May 19 Yerevan Press Club issued a statement on freedom of speech and press
in Armenia.

“Political situation, formed in Armenia as a result of the past presidential
elections, makes the need for specific, decisive steps in democratic reform
domain all the more urgent. A most important condition for the effectiveness
of these reforms is the change of the information climate in the country, the
guarantee of free expression and diverse media.

The past year became a period of new ordeals for the Armenian media. The attacks
of authorities on free media revived almost immediately after the end of parliamentary
elections 2007. It suffices to remember how quick the Government was in attempting
to push the amendments to the RA Law “On Television and Radio” that were in
fact aiming to oust the programs of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from Armenian
air. Afterwards the hunt of the state agencies for “GALA” TV Channel of Gyumri
was unleashed.

The extremely partial coverage of political processes by most of the TV companies
ahead of, during presidential elections and the post-election period became
a direct consequence of the increased pressure of the authorities on broadcast
media.

The introduction of state of emergency on March 1-20, 2008 in Yerevan was accompanied
by preemptive censorship that resulted in a suspension of a number of leading
newspapers, blockage of web-sites, known for their critical attitude towards
authorities. The one-sided reporting, insulting for the opposition, that a number
of TV companies aired was spreading intolerance and hostility towards significant
segments of political field and the society. This violated the commonly accepted
professional and legal norms as well as the respective provisions of the RA
President’s Decree on introducing state of emergency.

The global survey on freedom of press of “Freedom House” international organization
for 2007, released in late April this year, once again classed Armenian media
as not free. The two-point decline of media freedom level in the country was
explained by “Freedom House” to be due primarily to “increased government pressure
on the media ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections”.

The Resolution 1609, adopted on April 17, 2008 by the Parliamentary Assembly
of the Council of Europe, said: “Even though there is a pluralistic and independent
print media, the current level of control by the authorities of the electronic
media and their regulatory bodies, as well as the absence of a truly independent
and pluralist Public Broadcaster, impede the creation of a pluralistic media
environment and further exacerbate the lack of public trust in the political
system.”

After the adoption of PACE Resolution 1609, the critical remarks of a number
of other international and local organizations about presidential elections
and the post-election situation in Armenia, quite a lot of time has elapsed,
yet there is an impression that the authorities of the country did not make
appropriate practical conclusions. To rectify the situation Yerevan Press Club
proposes the following priority measures that must be implemented during the
upcoming one or two months:

1. During the parliamentary elections of 2007, the presidential elections of
2008 and also in the post-electoral period the National Commission on Television
and Radio (NCTR), having a status of independent regulator and commissioned
to “control the activities of TV and radio companies” (RA Law “On Television
and Radio”, Article 37, Part 1) failed to comply with one of its main functions
and failed to prevent violations of the RA legislation by most of the broadcasters.
This problem was reflected in the ruling of the RA Constitutional Court of March
8, 2008 and in an extraordinary public report of the RA Human Rights Defender,
published on April 25, 2008. In particular, the Constitutional Court stated
that in the course of presidential elections of 2008 “the National Commission
on Television and Radio displayed formalistic approach to the compliance with
the legal requirements. As a result, the media coverage displayed not only partiality,
but also, in some cases, violations of legal and ethical norms”. The preliminary
conclusion of the International Election Observation Mission at the presidential
election of Armenia, dated February 20, 2008, notes: “The National Commission
on Television and Radio did not adequately fulfill its mandate to monitor compliance
of the media with legal provisions.” The PACE Resolution 1609 of April 17, 2008
stresses directly: “The independence from any political interest of both the
National Television and Radio Commission and the Public Television and Radio
Council must be guaranteed. In addition, the composition of these bodies should
be revised in order to ensure that they are truly representative of Armenian
society. The recommendations made by the Venice Commission and Council of Europe
experts in this respect must finally be taken into account.” In 2006 the report
on the state of media freedom in Armenia by the OSCE Representative on Freedom
of the Media recommended that the composition of these bodies “should represent
the political and social diversity of the country, and should include NGOs and
professional associations”.

Proceeding from what has been said, we insist on the need to implement within
shortest time possible the legislative amendments to ensure the participation
of various political forces, civil society in the formation of NCTR, and we
urge the incumbent members of the National Commission to voluntarily resign.
Through the formation of the new composition of NCTR – in a procedure, stipulated
by profound legislative amendments – there will be an opportunity to fulfill
the requirements of Article 83.2 of the RA Constitution, as well as the recommendations
of the PACE Resolution 1609 of April 17, 2008.

2. During the past year the incompliance of the activities of the Public TV
and Radio Company of Armenia with its status and mission became even more obvious.
Ahead and during presidential elections of 2008 the news and current affairs
programs of the public broadcaster provided one-sided information and did not
comply with the requirements of the RA Law “On Television and Radio” about ensuring
political plurality. Moreover, by its activities, the Public Television did
not only fail to contribute to national accord, but also, on the contrary, incited
mutual hatred. In the same way it continued to work during the post-election
period. The abovementioned report of the RA Human Rights Defender notes: “A
most vivid example of such unacceptable coverage (during the state of emergency
YPC) was demonstrated by the First Channel of the
Public Television of Armenia, which not only neglected this provision of the
Decree, but also once again made a grave infringement of the requirement of
Article 28 of the RA Law “On Television and Radio”: ‘The prevalence of a political
stance in the programs broadcast (…) on public television (…) is prohibited’.”

The whole responsibility for violating the legislation, the standards of public
broadcasting, the professional norms lies on the Council of Public TV and Radio
Company. We believe that in the Council, as a result of appropriate legislative
changes, an equal representation of professionals is to be made – upon the nomination
from both political forces at power and the opposition. This would serve to
fulfill the recommendation of PACE Resolution 1609 of April 17, 2008: “(…)
Apart from reforming the legislation, the authorities must take steps to ensure
freedom and pluralism of the public television and radio on a day-to-day basis.”
The first step towards the reformation of the public broadcasting of Armenia,
in our opinion, can be also the voluntary resignation of the Council of the
Public TV and Radio Company – in full composition.

3. A particularly dangerous precedent for the free expression was the application
of preemptive censorship in Armenia during the period of March 1-20, 2008, while
it is prohibited by the RA legislation and was not introduced by the President’s
Decree on state of emergency or by any other official document.

We demand that an independent investigation of the occurrences of March 1,
2008 and subsequent developments, that must be made according to PACE Resolution
1609, include also the consideration of who, upon whose instructions and on
what legal grounds exercised preemptive censorship, and those responsible for
it be punished by the RA legislation.

4. We demand to stop the persecution of media for dissidence on any pretext.
The political struggle cannot be turned into a campaign against democratic values;
this increases the existing tension and endangers the future of the country”,
the statement of Yerevan Press Club says.

P.S. After the publication of the statement “Aravot” daily
asked the Chairman of the Council of Public TV and Radio Company of Armenia
Alexan Harutiunian whether he was going to follow the appeal of YPC and resign.
“No”, said the head of PTRC Council (“Aravot”, May 21, 2008).