Tuesday, July 10, 2007

RFE/RL in the Balance: Parliament approves controversial media amendments

By Marianna Grigoryan and Suren Musayelyan
ArmeniaNow reporters

The National Assembly today approved in first reading amendments that may seriously restrict the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Armenia. A pro forma second reading will follow, but is not likely to change today’s decision.

An amendment proposed in the 2000 law “On Television and Radio” bans the Public Television and Radio Company (PTRC), which has so far retransmitted the U.S. Congress-funded radio station’s programs with the consent of its board, to provide its frequencies for airing programs of other broadcasters.

In substantiating the need for the amendment, its authors have said that the status and objectives of the PTRC, a state establishment with a mission to serve exclusively public interests, are “incompatible with the right to give consent to other broadcasting organizations’ carrying out activities on the frequencies allocated to it.” It is also argued that the use of PTRC frequencies by other broadcasters violates the principle of competition and that “it is practically impossible to set clear criteria for the Board’s giving or withholding consent regarding the use of the PTRC’s frequencies”, and which may result in “arbitrary decision making”.

By another amendment that cites “equal competition” concerns the parliament is set to introduce changes in the country’s law “On state duties” according to which for every broadcast foreign mass media’s national services will have to pay 70 times the size of the basic duty (i.e. 70,000 drams, or approx. $205 per program – in RFE/RL’s case the duty would amount to about $300,000 per year.)

RFE/RL is, in fact, the only broadcaster to which the amendments apply. The legislative changes may result in a serious curtailment of the RFE/RL Armenian Service’s broadcasts in Armenia and even eventually lead to its closure.

The Prague-headquartered radio station’s Armenian service primarily relies on the Armenian Public Radio’s frequencies to air its daily news programs across the country (morning, afternoon and evening news programs).

“An attempt is being made to challenge freedom, free speech, Radio Liberty. The American Radio Liberty is broadcasting in countries where there are problems with democracy, including in Armenia, and its closure will cause political problems,” Victor Dallakyan, an MP not affiliated with any party, charged in parliament.

Despite assurances by pro-establishment forces that the amendments are not aimed against the Prague-headquartered radio station or at restricting press freedom in Armenia, it has been condemned by the parliamentary minority, including Raffi Hovannisian’s Heritage party and the Orinats Yerkir party.

“Radio Liberty was closed also in Uzbekistan after well-known events. There has been pressure from the presidential palace on that occasion, because during the New Year time Robert Kocharyan expressed his dissatisfaction with the work of Radio Liberty,” Heritage faction member Stepan Safaryan said.

The opposition in parliament was joined by media and rights groups as well as opposition parties outside parliament, which also criticized the move.

“It cannot last for long. We have only Liberty, and they want to muzzle it too,” says a statement released by “Asparez” club of journalists NGO today. “This initiative is aimed against the broadcast of Radio Liberty and is another episode in the consistent state policy of pressuring media freedom and freedom of expression.”

Parliament Speaker Tigran Torosyan, however, has downplayed the opposition concerns.

“These statements are no more than a provocation,” the top legislator from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) said. “The bill under discussion is in no way connected with Radio Liberty. Liberty is not a broadcasting company, as it has no corresponding license, and therefore this document is not connected with it.”

Another senior member of the party shares the opinion of the speaker.

“It is naive to think that the radio is so powerful that it can form public opinion. The role of radio is gradually declining,” RPA member Armen Ashotyan said during Thursday’s meeting in parliament. “The government has no goal of closing Radio Liberty. If it had, it would have done so in the Board of the Public Radio and Television Company, without so much transparency.”

Joining the outcry by opposition politicians and civil rights and media freedom groups in Armenia, an OSCE media freedom representative called on Armenian lawmakers on Thursday not to adopt the amendments, saying they were incompatible with OSCE commitments to media freedoms.

Miklos Haraszti said that as RFE/RL is currently the only foreign media outlet using the PTRC frequency, the adoption of the amendments “would amount to a ban on their programs in Armenia.”

In neighboring Azerbaijan, the national independent TV and radio channel, ANS, was barred from airing foreign broadcasts from the beginning of this year after authorities said it lacked the proper licenses.

ANS, previously an RFE/RL affiliate on FM, had also aired programs of the BBC and Voice of America.

RFE/RL, which had for decades served as one of the few sources of uncensored information for the peoples of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, was enabled to legally operate inside the former Communist bloc and reach retransmission agreements with local broadcasters after the downfall of communist regimes.

RFE/RL’s Armenian service was able to openly operate in Armenia and lease state radio frequencies until being controversially forced off the air in late 1994 by then President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Robert Kocharyan resumed the retransmission of RFE/RL programs by state radio shortly after he was elected president in 1998.

But in recent years, he has repeatedly expressed his displeasure with RFE/RL’s coverage of political events in Armenia.

According to a recent Gallup survey, RFE/RL is one of the most popular media outlets in Armenia. But its critical coverage of political events, in particular elections, is seen as a threat to the current administration and in particular to Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, a likely successor of Kocharyan as president in next year’s elections.

Suren Surenyants, a senior member of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun party, says that while before the last presidential election in 2003 they employed the National Television and Radio Commission to force A1 Plus out of the air, now the institution of parliament and parliamentarianism is being discredited.

“For me it is not only a political, but also a moral issue. When I and my numerous friends were for two months in the jail of the National Security Service, besides being a media outlet, Radio Liberty was for me and my friends the only hope for freedom and salvation and the only link with the outside world,” Surenyants told ArmeniaNow.

“It is wrong when they say there is no censorship today, because the fear that was instilled in us it is the same terrible censorship that keeps all media aloof from what is really happening,” A1 Plus TV Company director Mesrop Movsesyan told Aravot daily. “I think it is not the end yet, and it will have a more serious continuation in the direction of pressuring the press and free speech, because mass media will play a very important role during the presidential elections. We and the authorities understand this.”

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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