A political battle is developing in Armenia over draft legislation that would regulate mass media. Critics want an overhaul of the bill, saying the draft law's current wording could facilitate government censorship and force journalists to reveal the identities of sources. Government leaders, meanwhile, are resisting calls for significant changes to the legislation.
The government-supported bill would establish a body for controlling media activities and would require journalists to disclose their sources when government officials ask them to. The bill would also permit some practices that are considered sleazy, such as requiring media organizations to pay for information and interviews. The income from such payments would go to the state budget.
The United States Agency for International Development has long sought media reform in Armenia; its 2001 country report notes that "most daily newspapers are mouthpieces for political or business interests." Peter Eichstaedt, the IREX Resident Media Advisor in Armenia, called the government draft "regressive." On March 4, Council of Europe experts lambasted the draft legislation, declaring it worse than no law at all, the Arminfo news agency reported.
Many editors and journalists agree with the Council of Europe's evaluation, expressing concern that the bill could stifle their ability to report and present news. Nikol Pashinyan, a senior editor of the Haikakan Zhamanak daily, described the draft legislation as being tantamount to a "declaration of a legal war on mass media."
Media representatives argue that the draft does not comply with the Armenian Constitution. At a February 21 meeting of the representatives of mass media organizations, journalists adopted a declaration demanding the withdrawal of the government's version of the media bill. They also called on all officials supporting the law to resign. On March 1, leading Armenian newspapers - including Aravot, Azg, Haikakan Zhamanak and Yerkir - published a front-page protest titled "No to Censorship - Remove the Draft Law on Mass Communication from Circulation."
Comments by Justice Minister David Haroutyunyan helped stoke the political controversy surrounding the draft media law. The Justice Minister in mid February dismissed complaints about the draft. "Critics have not presented any really serious arguments against it," he said, adding that many journalists were misinterpreting the legislation. "If the thieves and criminals do not accept the Criminal Code, does it mean it must be removed?"
Prime Minister Andranik Markaryan appeared to back the Justice Minister in a February 21 interview published by the Ayastani Anrapetutyun newspaper. Markaryan held out room for slight modifications of the bill, but indicated the government remained committed to its draft. Markaryan also insisted that the government did not seek to control the media.
"Neither the government suppresses mass media, nor mass media suppresses the government. We are partners," the prime minister said. "We should know with certainty that the law is necessary. The law will not be revoked. There will be additional elaboration."
It remains to be seen if the government gets its way. President Robert Kocharyan - who is eager to enhance Armenia's democratic credentials, and thus bring the Caucasus nation closer to the European mainstream - appears to side with those who favor an overhaul of the legislation to ensure that it conforms with Council of Europe standards. "We should adopt the European family game rules," he said.
Powerful members of parliament have also expressed opposition to the government draft, indicating that the bill could be rewritten once it is considered by the National Assembly. Shavarsh Kocharyan, the Chairman of the National Assembly's Commission on Education, Youth and Culture Affairs is among the government-sponsored draft's opponents, saying it does not conform to the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms. The committee chairman also indicated some legislators would be open to considering incorporating suggestions made by the Yerevan Press Club into the bill.
Ruzanna Hakobyan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.