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Armenian Media Law Sparks Protest

Media experts say the government's Television and Radio Law is an open attack on democracy and freedom of speech
By David Petrosian

TV and radio stations across Armenia went off the air for 45 minutes last week in protest against a controversial new law giving the state increased control over local broadcast media.


Under the Television and Radio Law, which was adopted by the National Assembly last October, all licensing questions will be decided by two regulatory bodies, both appointed by the president.


A statement released by the mutinous TV and radio stations expressed "deep concern over the new law" which would "do little to help build a fourth estate in Armenia". The statement continued, "Insofar as all attempts by local media to overturn the law have been fruitless, we have no alternative but to organise a joint act of protest."


Astkhik Gevorkian, chairman of the Union of Journalists, commented, "We have taken this extreme measure to make the authorities understand that they have journalists, journalistic organisations and the media to reckon with."


Even Armenian National Television - a state-run station - took part in the January 12 industrial action which lasted from 8pm to 8.45pm.


However, the official reaction to the strike gave the protestors little cause for optimism. Galust Saakian, chairman of the Miasnutiun faction in the National Assembly, said the stations were going the wrong way about changing the legislation.


He commented that deputies were always ready to enter into a dialogue with the press and discuss relevant points of law.


But his words were belied by recent calls in the National Assembly for John Balian, head of the United States Information Service in Armenia, to be branded a persona non grata after he delivered a blistering attack on the Television and Radio Law at a January seminar.


This is a far cry from Armenia's recent pledge to the Council of Europe to uphold democratic standards in the realm of press freedom.


In a recent TV interview, Mark Grigorian, a political analyst, pointed out that the National Assembly had adopted the Television and Radio Law in response to political pressure from the Council of Europe.


"The way things have worked out, the Council of Europe has actually become the stimulus for this undemocratic law being adopted," said Grigorian. "It's absurd."


Media experts are particularly concerned by the proposed creation of two regulatory bodies - the National Commission, which will control private broadcast media, and the Public Council, which will focus on the state sector. The members of both bodies will be appointed by the president.


The two bodies have the power to revoke a station's broadcasting licence or put a stop to specific broadcasts without first seeking a court injunction.


Levon Barsegian, chairman of the Shant radio company in Gyumri, believes that the law could threaten the continued existence of dozens of radio stations which are hard pushed to survive in today's harsh economic and social conditions. The law, he claims, contains a number of fundamental inconsistencies and rides roughshod over democratic principles.


The Television and Radio Law was first proposed in 1997 by Sergo Yeritsian, a member of the Reforms faction and a prominent journalist with Armenian National Television. Many observers speculated that the bill was actually designed to ensure that its author was chosen to head the state TV station - however, these hopes were dashed by the death of his mentor, Telman Ter-Petrosian, chairman of Reforms and brother of the then president.


Council of Europe experts subsequently found more than 50 contradictory articles in Yeritsian's law and proposed a complete revision. However, the Armenian government politely thanked the European legal team and published the bill in the local press without any changes.


The project was reanimated in 2000 when a parliamentary commission invited comments and criticisms from local media experts.


However, Boris Navasardian, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, said the lawmakers ignored repeated attempts to express the interests of society and the journalistic community whilst an alternative version of the bill, submitted by the Press Club, was dismissed out of hand.


Navasardian warned, "If society's opinion is simply going to be ignored, then we can only resort to more radical measures to ensure that the law doesn't cause real damage not just to the media but to the development of Armenia as a democratic state."


David Petrosian is a political observer with the Noyan Tapan news agency