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Controversial Law Could Curb Armenian Media

Legislation will allow authorities to select favoured broadcasters for digital licenses, experts warn.
By Karine Asatryan

Serzh Sargsyan has signed off on media legislation that critics at home and abroad say will restrict freedom of speech in Armenia.

The law was passed by parliament on June 10, and Sargsyan signed it a week later.

The reason a new law was needed was that Armenia will switch from analogue to digital broadcasting in 2013. But there are fears that it could reduce the number of stations licensed to broadcast, and skew the balance in favour of pro-government outlets.

Media watchdogs and pressure groups say the law was drafted in haste and without adequate consultation.

“We urge you to refrain from signing the law and instead return it to the National Assembly and urge them to continue their deliberations with the aim of bringing any and all amendments into compliance with Armenia's international obligations on freedom of expression,” Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Asia division, wrote to the president in an unsuccessful appeal.

Cartner’s comments reflected concern from inside and outside Armenia. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, also joined the chorus, saying that the limits on the number of channels, the nature of the regulatory system, and the right of courts to cancel broadcasting licenses would all threaten freedom of speech.

"Armenia should not lose the opportunity to adopt forward-looking media legislation. New technologies, including digital broadcasting, should be used by governments to strengthen media pluralism," said Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE representative on freedom of the media.

The government did organise discussions with journalists and media rights activists between the first and second readings, but those who attended say their recommendations were ignored.

“We said 100 times that they should adopt only the section relating to the shift to digital transmissions,” said Mesrop Harutyunyan of Armenia’s Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression.

The number of channels available to broadcasters will be cut from 22 to 18 when analogue transmissions halt in July 2013.

Broadcasting companies will have to bid for ten-year digital licenses on July 20 this year and again in January 2011.

Experts, including those from Human Rights Watch, worry that the competition rules will discriminate against new entries into the media market, as they favour companies with at last three years in broadcasting behind them. They also believe the tender process is opaque, and note that the National Television and Radio Commission will not be required to explain why it turns out a particular bid.

Most officials are currently on holiday, and no one in the economy ministry, which is overseeing the process, was available to comment on specific objections.

However, Artak Davtyan, who chairs the parliamentary commission on education, science and culture, said it was better to have a bad law than no law at all, and that international organisations had over-reacted to the changes.

“They say some of the points and elements in it are not in line with our international obligations. But any section of the law that isn’t in line with them will not be applied. We understand what they are saying, but this problem only exists at surface level,” he said. “We need to wait for the law to start operating. That will highlight its strong and weak points. There is no dogma here… and it’s possible that there will be some minor changes in autumn.”

Rights groups were unconvinced by such assurances, and nor was A1+, an Armenian company which was stripped of its broadcast license in 2002 and has not returned to the airwaves despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights saying the government had deprived it of freedom of speech.

A1+ said the new law would do nothing to enhance free speech.

“The changes to the law on television and radio are a new song in an old story, and in actual fact they change nothing,” said Mesrop Movsesyan, chairman of A1+.

Noting that A1+ had taken part in 11 tenders since 2002 without being granted a license, Movsesyan said “it’s been eight years and nothing has happened”.

He predicted, “They’re going to repeat the way they tried to deal with A1+. They will say they’re holding a tender, that it’s transparent and that the same conditions apply to all, but this will all be just for form’s sake. The Armenian authorities have set themselves the goal of not letting us back on air. In future, other obstacles will be placed in our way, but we are ready to overcome them.”

Boris Navasardyan, chairman of the Yerevan Press Club, said parliament should have spent more time improving the bill, since Armenia will have to live with the outcome of the new tendering process for the next decade.

Harutyunyan said he suspected the current government wanted to ensure it was in control of TV broadcasters as a route to winning the 2012 parliamentary election.

“The 18 [winning] companies will be very pliable and tame, and they’ll do whatever the government wants during the election campaign,” he said.

Karine Asatryan is editor of www.a1plus.am.
 

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