Council of Europe Joins Media Bill Criticism

YEREVAN (RFE/RL–Armenpress)–Armenian journalists campaigning against a government-sponsored draft law on mass media received a decisive boost on Monday from the Council of Europe–which warned that the proposed legislation poses a threat to press freedom.

Experts from the Strasbourg-based human rights organization said the bill–which has sparked an unprecedented wave of criticism from the local media–falls short of European standards. The three experts arrived in Yerevan on Sunday to present their conclusions and hold meetings with Armenian editors–journalists and government officials.

Meeting with a group of journalists in Yerevan–they expressed concern–in particular–at a provision ordering the creation of a government agency in charge of "state oversight" of news organizations. Local media organizations similarly believe that it could lead to an effective state censorship of their reporting.

The agency would also be empowered to issue and revoke licenses without which media outlets would not be allowed to operate. The Armenian ministry of justice–the main author of the controversial bill–says the proposed replacement of their mandatory registration under current law–with a mere licensing would facilitate the creation of newspapers–magazines and TV and radio stations.

But according to one of the visiting experts–Ramon Prieto Suares–the licensing requirement runs counter to the established practice in most Council of Europe countries. Suares said the government would thereby gain leverage against the media.

The bill–rejected by the overwhelming majority of Armenian newspapers and broadcasting organizations–does not specify in which cases the government agency can turn down a request for license. It instead stipulates that reporters wishing to interview officials would have to file a written request and await a reply for several days. Newspapers–in addition–would need officials’ consent for publishing their photographs or cartoons.

In a statement issued last month–journalists from media outlets offering a wide variety of opinions urged the government not to submit the bill to the parliament for approval. The Yerevan Press Club–an independent media watchdog which was behind the initiative–has concluded in a report that the proposed law is "not compatible with the concept of freedom of speech."

In a bid to assuage media anger–President Robert Kocharian promised on February 20 that the proposed legislation will not be enacted without the Council of Europe’s approval.

Meanwhile–senior Armenian lawmakers told the Strasbourg experts later on Monday that the bill in its current form will not be even considered by the parliament. Its deputy speaker–Tigran Torosian–was quoted assaying that he and most of his colleagues "fully share and accept" concerns voiced by the Council of Europe and the domestic journalist community. Torosian proposed that the parliament–government and media form a joint working group that would draw up a new media bill "acceptable to all parties" within three months. It too would need the Council’s approval before being put to parliament debate–he added.

The chairman of the parliament committee on science and education–Shavarsh Kocharian–said his panel is ready to discuss the idea.

Senior experts form the OSCE voiced their concern over the Armenian government drafted and approved bill on mass media–reported the Armenpress news agency.

"This bill is not the best one. The OSCE approach toward issues concerning freedom of mass media are more comprehensive and we are against any bill that limits the freedom of press," they said March 4 in Yerevan during a public discussion devoted to the controversial bill–that is being harshly criticized by the media community.

Last week–Armenian journalists released a statement whereby they described the government’s bill as unacceptable and "an attempt to introduce once practiced censorship." The statement said the bill could not be submitted to parliament’s consideration and called for removing it from circulation.

The OSCE experts said there were clauses in the bill which ran counter to the European Convention on free press. They had sent their remarks to Armenian justice ministry–the author of the bill.

The OSCE experts did not know that the new bill was drafted to meet one of Armenia’s commitmen’s towards the Council of Europe. They said there was no need for drafting a new bill on mass media–as Armenia’s old law was in line with the Council of Europe requiremen’s. They claimed the Council of Europe did not propose to Armenia to draft a new bill on mass media.

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