ROUND TABLE PARTICIPANTS URGE THE AUTHORITIES TO SOLVE MEDIA LEGISLATION PROBLEMS
On March 20-21 in Yerevan a round table meeting “Reforms of Armenian Media Legislation and Their Compliance With European Standards” was held. It was organized by Yerevan Press Club and “Article 19” Global Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Representatives of executive, legislative, judicial power, NGOs and media of Armenia, international organizations, foreign experts participated in the meeting. RA Minister of Justice David Harutyunyan and Head of OSCE Office in Yerevan, Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin opened the round table.
The meeting participants discussed the whole spectrum of legislative initiatives regulating media sphere and adopted by the Parliament in the recent year: RA Law “On Mass Communication” (Deputy Minister of Justice Ashot Abovian made a presentation on this issue), amendments to RA Law “On Television and Radio” (presentation by RA National Assembly deputy Vazgen Khachikian). Particular attention was paid to the amendments to RA Law “On Freedom of Information” recently adopted by the Government (presentation by “Article 19” Legal Officer Peter Noorlander). Other no less urgent topics were devoted to Armenia’s honoring of the commitments to the Council of Europe in freedom of expression (presentation by YPC Expert Mesrop Harutyunyan), necessity for decriminalization of libel and insult (presentation by International Expert Ireneusz Cezary Kaminski), Polish experience in public broadcasting (presentation by Member of Polish Journalists’ Association Board of Directors Agnieszka Romaszewska).
At the round table, Article 19 publicized its statement on the situation with media legislation in Armenia. Emphasizing a certain progress in developing legal guarantees for freedom of expression and media diversity achieved by Armenia in the past four years – since its accession to CE, the organization expressed its concern over a number of problems demanding urgent solution. In particular, “Article 19” statement notes that regular refusal of the National Commission on Television and Radio of broadcast license to “A1+” TV Company testifies to “lack of political independence” of this body regulating private broadcasters’ activity.
On March 21, the last working day of the round table, one more statement was adopted – this time by its participants. The statement runs,
“We, the participants in the “Round Table on Reforms of Armenian Media Legislation and their Compliance with European Standards”, organized by Yerevan Press Club and “Article 19” Global Campaign for Freedom of Expression, meeting on 20-21 March 2004,
Emphasizing the crucial importance of freedom of expression and information as an individual human right, as a cornerstone of democracy and as a means of ensuring respect for all human rights and freedoms;
Concerned that while some important steps have been taken to bring Armenia’s media laws into line with European standards on the right to freedom of expression, much remains to be done;
Call on the Government of the Republic of Armenia to take urgent action to address the following concerns:
The current harsh criminal provisions on defamation and insult should be abolished and replaced with appropriate civil defamation laws, incorporating the following standards:
– Actual damages awarded for defamation must be proportionate to the harm caused and take into account whether or not alternative remedies, such as the right to reply, have been accessed. Moral damages or any other punitive awards should be limited and take into account their likely impact on the wider exercise of the right to freedom of expression;
– Public officials, because of their status as servants of the people, should enjoy less protection than ordinary citizens;
– No one should be held liable for the expression of an honestly held opinion; and
– The burden of proof of the falsity of an allegation in a matter of public of concern should be on the plaintiff.
The independence of the National Commission of Television and Radio must be strengthened. The entire process for appointing members should be open and democratic, include full public participation and consultation and should not be dominated by any particular political or commercial interest. Membership overall should be required to be reasonably representative of society as a whole. The independence of the Council of the Public Television and Radio Company must be strengthened likewise.
The licensing procedures included in the Broadcasting Law of 2000 must also be made more transparent. In particular, the Commission should provide full and complete written reasons for the grant or refusal of any broadcasting license application.
Freedom of Information
The proposed amendments to the Law on Freedom of Information threaten seriously to undermine the right of access to information. These amendments should be abandoned and the current law must be implemented with immediate effect. In particular, the implementing rules and regulations necessary to make the Law operational must be prepared immediately, in an open and consultative process.
Any future amendments to the Law must promote rather than restrict the right to access to information, for example by limiting fees and reducing restrictions, and be adopted in a consultative process fully involving civil society, as supported by the OSCE Office in Yerevan. We welcome the statement of intent made by the Minister of Justice in this regard and we ask that before any further discussions take place, a report is published in which the concerns of the Ministry of Justice with regard to the September 2003 Law are clearly set out.
Mass Media Legislation
We welcome steps taken in the Law on Mass Communication to protect journalists’ sources, and we also welcome the statement made by the Deputy Minister of Justice regarding further work to bring criminal procedure laws in line with this. At the same time, we are highly concerned at the restriction the law places on the dissemination by journalists of classified information. This restriction violates international standards and must be removed.
We are also concerned that the accreditation procedures currently being prepared should promote, not restrict, the right of journalists to report on the activities of state bodies. They should be fair, transparent and independently administered, and not create yet another bureaucratic hurdle for journalists to overcome.
We request that a permanent group be set up with the Ministry of Justice to involve fully civil society representatives in any discussion of present or future laws and regulations that affect the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, including the implementation of these laws. This group should collaborate and consult with the Working Group under the parliamentary Commission on Science, Education, Culture and Youth Issues.”
COMMUNIQUE ON THE LAW “ON FREEDOM OF INFORMATION”
On March 23, RA Ministry of Justice, Internews Armenia and “Article 19” Global Campaign for Freedom of Expression adopted a joint communique as a result of two days’ discussions (March 22-23) on amendments to RA Law “On Freedom of Information”, approved by Armenian Government on February 12, 2004.
The sides agreed that the discussion on introducing amendments to Law “On Freedom of Information”, adopted in September 2003, should not impede implementation of the existing Law. “The Ministry of Justice welcomes any proposals that would facilitate the implementation of the existing Freedom of Information Law and will consider them seriously”, the communique notes. Any amendments to the Law will aim to strengthen and clarify protection of the right to freedom of information as recognized in this Law, the RA Constitution and international agreements, as further mentioned.
Besides, the communique emphasizes that ”in the process of drafting and adopting amendments to the Freedom of Information Law there will be full consultation with civil society, including the Freedom of Information Civic Initiative, Internews Armenia, the Yerevan Press Club and others, and international organizations”.
The communique also contains accorded commentary on several articles of the Law “On Freedom of Information”.
COMPROMISE REACHED, WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP?
On March 4 RA Government approved the Model Procedure for Accrediting Journalists in the State Administration (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, March 5-11, 2004). After our repeated addresses to the author of the Model Procedure, RA Ministry of Justice, the text of the ratified document was finally provided. The draft of this sublegislative act was subject of detailed and constructive discussion with a number of journalistic associations and media. In particular, Yerevan Press Club, Journalists Union of Armenia, Internews Armenia and the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression made their suggestions to the Ministry of Justice on amending several provisions of the Procedure.
Thus the mentioned organizations proposed to introduce in the Procedure a provision on prohibiting any form of censorship of accredited journalist’s professional activity by a state institution. This suggestion was introduced in the ratified text of the document.
According to the journalistic associations, the draft of the Model Procedure presented extra obstacles for accreditation. The latter ones were removed, similarly to the point providing for the cases in which the journalist is not eligible for accreditation. Alongside this, the professional organizations proposed to stipulate for the ban on filing any claims except the ones specified in the point determining the accreditation procedure. This suggestion was not included in the official document ratified by the Government.
The journalistic organizations also suggested that accreditation limitations be purely technical, in particular, be conditioned, for instance, by the absence of proper venues at the disposal of a state administration body, etc. However, the final version of the Procedure preserved the quantitative limitation as well: no more than two journalists and two photo correspondents/two cameramen from each media.
The suggestion on simplifying the procedure of access of media representatives in state administration body – by identification card and list of accredited journalists – was partially accepted.
On the initiative of journalistic organizations, a point was added in the Model Procedure obligating the ministries no less than twice a month to provide journalists with a summary report of their activity, as for the ministers – no less than once in half a year to inform about the work done at a press conference.
Thus, the ratified document may be the result of a certain compromise between the Ministry of Justice and journalistic organizations. However, it is necessary to admit that on the basis of this sublegislative act each state administration body develops its own accreditation regulations. The latter ones and their implementation will allow assessing appropriateness and effectiveness of the Model Procedure.
STATE OFFICIAL LOSES TO “DELOVOY EXPRESS”
On March 25, the court of primary jurisdiction of Arabkir and Kanaker-Zeytun communities of Yerevan rejected the suit of a member of RA State Commission on Protection of Economic Competition Artashes Bakhshian versus “Delovoy Express” business weekly. The plaintiff demanded that the editorial office republish his interview to the weekly since the content of the latter, in his opinion, was distorted as a result of editorial interference (see detail in YPC Weekly Newsletter, March 12-18, 2004).
“A1+” SUIT VERSUS NATIONAL COMMISSION ON TELEVISION AND RADIO REJECTED
On March 23, RA Commercial Court rejected the suit of “A1+” founder, “Meltex” LLC, versus the National Commission on Television and Radio. The litigation was centered on the results of the broadcast licensing competitions on June 11 and July 18, 2003 at which the bids by “A1+” were assessed lower than the ones of its rivals (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, November 7-13, 2003). The plaintiff claimed for obligating the National Commission to provide grounds for refusing broadcast license on the results of these competitions.
The hearings on this case started on November 3 last year, and at the previous session of February 10, the representative of the respondent filed a petition on challenging the judge that was accepted (see YPC Weekly Newsletter, February 6-12, 2004). The new judge managed to reject the suit in just one session.
CAMPAIGN IN SUPPORT OF “A1+”
On March 19, Fund for Speech Freedom Support announced a campaign on April 2, 2004 in support of “A1+” TV company. On this very day, two years ago “A1+” was deprived of air as a result of refusal by National Commission on Television and Radio of broadcast license. Since then, the TV company unsuccessfully participated in seven more license competitions conducted by National Commission and still more unsuccessfully challenged the decisions of this regulating body in the courts.
In the course of these two years, numerous international organizations, journalistic community of the country repeatedly addressed the Armenian authorities with a claim not to politicize “A1+” issue and to give the society an opportunity to hear an alternative viewpoint. The recent example of this was the Final Statement and Recommendations adopted at the Sixth Session of EU-Armenia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, held on March 15-16 in Yerevan. Among the Recommendations, adopted unanimously and pursuant to Article 89 of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, Parliamentary Cooperation Committee “draws attention to the vital role played by a free press in ensuring the development of democracy in Armenia and stresses in particular the importance of pluralism in the electronic media”.
The initiative group on the support of “A1+” TV company calls on everyone who values freedom of expression to participate on April 2 in the procession and rally thus supporting the following claims to the Armenian authorities: to conduct a competition for vacant frequencies and to involve representatives of public organizations in the process of rating assessments of the bidders’ competition packages.
The procession will start at 14.00 from “A1+” TV building (15, Grigor Lusavorich St., Yerevan) and will end in a rally (at 15.00) at Yerevan Freedom Square.
JUBILEE ISSUE OF YSU NEWSPAPER
On March 18, an event devoted to 2000 issue of “Yerevani Hamalsaran” newspaper was held in Yerevan State University. It was founded in 1920 at a time with the establishment of the University.
Yerevan Press Club congratulates the colleagues with jubilee and wishes them future success!