Armenia: Controversial Media Bill Overhauled

A campaign by Armenian journalists has forced the government to withdraw a much-criticised draft law on the media.

Armenia: Controversial Media Bill Overhauled

A campaign by Armenian journalists has forced the government to withdraw a much-criticised draft law on the media.

In what may be a significant a victory for press freedom, Armenian editors, working with the Council of Europe, CoE, have forced a major overhaul of a controversial media bill.

Yet the breakthrough was tarnished by the closure of independent Armenian television channel A1 Plus on April 2, in a move that suggests that the authorities may be seeking to assert control over the press.

Armenia's new draft media law is being given unprecedented public discussion. Deputy justice minister Ashot Abovian said his ministry had posted a text of the bill on the website and that it would be debated at a meeting in Yerevan on April 4-5, attended by the authors of the proposed legislation, editors and journalists, members of the local OSCE office and the US-funded organisation World Learning.

This is a dramatic contrast to the situation a month ago, when local media and international experts condemned an initial bill as draconian and undemocratic. " The first draft restricted freedom of expression, contained many legal mistakes and demonstrated a complete ignorance of the professional field of the media, the second does not," said Boris Navasardian, president of the Yerevan Press Club. "In this, I think, we can see a victory for journalists."

A colourful tale that has involved government, media and the CoE began in February. The justice ministry drafted a mass media law, which provided for amongst other things, the creation of a new state-run organ for control of the press. It also required newspapers and broadcasters to receive a license every year, a move which, said Mesrop Harutiunian, an expert with the Yerevan Press Club, likened the press to producers of alcohol, who have to reaffirm their right to production every year.

It also stipulated that journalists would be required to pay for interviews with state officials; publication of photographs of politicians and public figures without their agreement would be banned and political cartoons would be forbidden; and journalists would lose the right to keep their sources secret.

In an extraordinary display of solidarity, pro-government and opposition media organisations banded together and demanded that the authorities withdraw the bill. When the authors of the draft proposed that journalists should put forward their own ideas and form a working group to improve the proposed legislation, they received the response that it was so bad and undemocratic, that it only made sense to scrap it and start again.

In a joint statement, Armenian media organisations said, "Acting on the need to defend freedom of information and democracy, we reserve the right to demand the dismissal of those officials who, by deliberately defending this law, are trying to divert the country from the path of democratic development."

In a meeting with journalists, Armenian president Robert Kocharian announced that the draft law could be reconsidered, but only after an expert appraisal by the CoE. Kocharian's statement aroused mixed feelings among journalists.

On the one hand, they thought it was good that the bill would not be passed without the approval of the CoE. On the other, they felt that the head of state was once again displaying his unwillingness to listen to the views of his own media.

In early March, a visiting delegation from the CoE sharply criticised the draft law, as expected. "This document creates broad opportunities for the restriction of freedom of expression," said Ramon Prieto Suarez, the head of the delegation, while the head of the OSCE mission in Yerevan Roy Reeve called it a "categorically unacceptable" retreat from the principles of free expression.

Bowing to pressure at the end of March, the deputy justice minister Ashot Abovian presented a new media bill. Although he claimed it was a re-worked version of the old one, it was, in fact, entirely different. The original twenty-page draft had been cut almost in half, almost all the controversial provisions had been removed and points had even appeared in it guaranteeing freedom of expression.

A new working group has been formed to discuss the fresh draft and only two opposition newspapers are still demanding that the proposed legislation be scrapped altogether. According to Abovian, if a consensus is reached at the meeting on April 4-5, then the bill can be sent for debate in the Armenian parliament later in the month.

The dramatic collapse of the original draft law, widely seen as condemned to fail from the start, has puzzled observers. "In the context of a pre-election year, the justice ministry has given the opposition a marvellous present," wrote the Russian-language newspaper Golos Armenii.

But a sense that a major victory for freedom of speech had been secured seemed premature on April 2, as the popular television channel A1 Plus went off the air, after failing to win a tender to retain its broadcasting frequency. In this, most observers see the hand of the state moving against a source of independent news.

Ashot Gazazian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan

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