Wednesday, 28 February 2007

STATEMENT OF YEREVAN PRESS CLUB ON THE ADOPTION OF AMENDMENTS TO THE BROADCASTING LEGISLATION BY THE RA NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

The adoption of the draft laws “On Introducing Amendments to the RA Law ‘On Television and Radio’” and “On Introducing Amendments and Addition to the RA Law ‘Regulations of the National Commission on Television and Radio’” by the National Assembly of Armenia on February 26, 2007 shows that neither the government that has authored the draft, nor the parliament is ready or willing to improve the broadcasting legislation, to bring it into compliance with the modern principles of freedom of expression and international standards. Once again, we are facing a closed, “in camera” process of developing draft laws on media and the hasty discussion and voting at NA - as during military mobilization.

The argument that the need to bring the Law into accord with the amended Constitution called for a rapid procedure does not hold water. Over a year has elapsed since the adoption of the amendments to the Constitution, and both the governmental and the parliamentary structures had enough time to hold discussions, hearings, to study the proposals submitted, to get expert evaluation. The restriction of the lawmaking process to that of stamping out legal acts, subjected to the political interests of the day, do not in any way testify to the commitment of Armenian authorities to the principles of democracy and the process of European integration that they declare.

Yerevan Press Club and partner oprganisations in 2005 have repeatedly stated that the provisions of the draft amendments to the Constitution that deal with the communications, in particular, the broadcast media, do not create favorable conditions for reforming media legislation, proposed alternative versions of amendments. But the parliamentary majority with a firmness that deserves better use advanced its own definitions. The further developments proved our fears were justified: the amended Constitution has significantly restricted the prospects of the law making on ensuring the independence of the TV and radio regulatory body.

At the same time the amendments to the broadcasting legislation, adopted on February 26, do not reflect even the positive stipulations of the amended Constitution. Firstly, the proportion of the members of the regulatory body (the National Commission on Television and Radio) appointed by the President and elected by the Parliament, as provided for by the Main Law, will, following the amendments, only be reached in 2011, after NCTR will have held a number of broadcast licensing competitions. Secondly, the amendments do not ensure the public and political diversity in NCTR composition: in accordance with the procedures proposed, the decision about the appointment of NCTR members from NA will be made by the parliamentary majority, which, as the political practice of Armenia shows, is always in the same camp with the President. In other words, the regulatory body, like before, will be formed solely by the political forcers at power, and in this regard the amended legislation does not introduce any significant novelty. Thirdly, like before, the involvement of the public in NCTR formation and the transparency of its decision-making is not ensured. Fourthly, the remaining subdivision into the paid (that is, the full-time NCTR members -the chairman and the vice chairman) and the unpaid members condition huge gap in their competence and violate the principle of collegiate decision-making. Fifthly, the expansion of the NCTR competence and inclusion of the public broadcaster into it, as stipulated by the amended Constitution, did not entail the description of the mechanisms of regulating the activities of the Public TV and Radio Company by the National Commission on Television and Radio.

Once again the opportunity of improving the Law “On Television and Radio” in general, eliminating the numerous deficiencies it had since its adoption in October 2000, without restricting oneself to the provisions that run contrary to the amended Constitution is missed.

The whole process of developing and adopting draft laws “On Introducing Amendments to the RA Law ‘On Television and Radio’” and “On Introducing Amendments and Addition to the RA Law ‘Regulations of the National Commission on Television and Radio’” by the RA National Assembly on February 26, 2007 demonstrated open and cynical negligence of the opinion of the journalistic community by the Government and the parliamentary majority. None of the proposals of public organizations, presented as expert assessment, concepts of reforming the broadcasting legislation, finally, as a ready-to-use draft law, received attention. Only individual remarks, noting the obvious technical omissions in official drafts, were taken into account. Unfortunately, the demonstrative reluctance of the authorities to discuss anything with stakeholders is becoming a tradition in the Armenian law-making practice.

The voting at NA on February 26 also ignored the appeal of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to the RA authorities to hold consultations with the CE experts before the adoption of amendments to the Law “On Television and Radio”, as well as the recommendations of the Office of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and its offer to make an expert assessment of the draft amendments. Formation of the broadcasting legislation in compliance with the standards of the Council of Europe was one of the commitments that Armenia undertook upon its accession to CE, and further on the need to improve it was noted in numerous documents of this international organization. However, this process remains a sign of resistance to democratic reforms in the country.

The stance on the matter, held by parliamentary factions of governing coalition, can be somehow explained by mutual political commitments - after all, the draft amendments were initiated by their coalition government. Yet the behavior of individual deputies, who call themselves “opposition” or “independent”, but who voted for the drafts and ensured their adoption is even shameful to comment. Because it is they who keep complaining of the control that authorities have over broadcast media, at the same time reinforcing the state of affairs by their vote…

What has been said here causes concern not only because of the adoption of the two drafts, but also in the context of the overall sociopolitical situation in the country before the parliamentary elections. There are too many alarming premonitions that the upcoming election campaign, instead of being a declaration of commitment to certain values by political forces, will turn into a demonstration of cynicism, reactionary sentiment and conformism cult.

February 28, 2007

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