Armenian Parliament Rejects Foreign Media Bill

By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Astghik Bedevian

Radio Liberty, Czech Republic
July 3 2007

The Armenian government unexpectedly failed to push through parliament
on Tuesday controversial draft legislation that could have led to a
de facto ban on Armenian-language broadcasts of RFE/RL.

The National Assembly dominated by government supporters lacked
only one vote to make a quorum and pass a package of relevant legal
amendments in the final reading. Failure by some pro-government
lawmakers to take part in the crucial vote and its boycott by the
opposition minority were decisive for the surprise development.

Under Armenian law, the parliament passes laws by a simple majority
in votes involving most of its 131 members. Only 65 deputies chose to
make their final judgment on the government bill, 63 of them voting
for it and the two others abstaining.

The 15 or so opposition deputies were about to vote against the
bill when one of them, Victor Dallakian, noticed a worse-than-usual
attendance of Tuesday’s parliament session by majority members.

Dallakian, who is not affiliated with any party, persuaded his
colleagues representing the opposition Zharangutyun and Orinats Yerkir
parties to opt for a boycott instead. As a result, they blocked the
draft amendments that would ban state radio from retransmitting of
news programs of foreign broadcasters and impose heavy fees on private
networks engaged in such retransmission.

"Thank God, my calculation proved right," Dallakian said afterwards.

"I congratulate Radio Liberty. The parliament minority has proved that
what matters is quality, and not quantity. This will be a lesson for
the parliament majority, which will have to respect one of the most
important rights, liberty."

The proposed changes are widely believed to be directed against
RFE/RL’s Armenian service that has long been using state radio’s
broadcasting frequency to make its popular news programs accessible
to the vast majority of Armenians. The Armenian opposition and local
and international human rights organizations believe that they would
further restrict press freedom in the country.

Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian and other senior members of Prime
Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) have insisted all
along that the retransmission ban would not be applicable to RFE/RL.

However, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian indicated the opposite as
the parliament wrapped up heated debates on the issue on Monday.

The differing interpretations are construed by some observers as
an indication of differences within Armenia’s leadership over the
future of RFE/RL broadcasts which President Robert Kocharian believes
feature too much criticism of his administration. The failure by
some pro-government deputies to show up for the final vote on the
bill may have been another sign of such disagreements.

Particularly glaring was the absence of the majority of deputies
affiliated with the HHK’s junior coalition partners, the Prosperous
Armenia Party (BHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation
(Dashnaktsutyun). Only 11 of the 25 BHK legislators took part in the
vote and backed the bill. One of them, Aram Safarian, said six of
his absent colleagues did not show up for "health reasons."

"I have no information about the others," Safarian told RFE/RL. "You
should ask them about their motives for not voting," he added.

Dashnaktsutyun attendance of the session was even poorer, with only
two of its 16 deputies deciding to vote. One of them, former Deputy
Labor Minister Artsvik Minasian, backed the proposed restrictions,
while the other, Alvard Petrosian, abstained. The latter had voted for
the bill, along with virtually all other members of Dashnaktsutyun’s
parliament faction, in the first reading on Friday.

Petrosian explained on Tuesday that she had mistakenly pressed a
wrong button and supports continued RFE/RL broadcasts. "But I don’t
think that our life, our freedom of speech, sense of liberty hinges
on Radio Liberty and that if we closed Radio Liberty Armenia would
be destroyed," she said. "I just think that if we listened to Liberty
in Soviet times, we should also be able to listen to it now."

Dashnaktsutyun has still not expressed its official position on the
amendments in question.

Also absent were six deputies from the HHK. Another Republican
lawmaker, former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, abstained during
the vote.

Leaders of the HHK faction declined to comment on the resulting
fiasco. "I take this as a fait accompli," said its secretary, Samvel
Nikoyan. "This bill did not garner sufficient votes and was not
passed. Period."

It was not immediately clear whether the government will re-introduce
the bill and, if so, whether it will call another emergency session
of the National Assembly or wait until the start of the parliament’s
regular autumn session in September. In the latter case, the bill
would have to discussed and approved by a relevant parliament committee
before being again put to the vote.

Opposition minority leaders, meanwhile, welcomed what they see
as a boost to free speech. "The fight for liberty continues," said
Zharangutyun leader Raffi Hovannisian. "We thwarted the first attempt
at capital punishment and must continue our fight until liberty
prevails in our country."

"This was a good example of our joint work aimed defense of free
speech," said Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian. "I want to
hail all those people who stood by liberty. As you saw, even in the
majority there were people who did not vote."

"This is a victory for liberty," agreed another Orinats Yerkir deputy,
Mher Shahgeldian. "This is extremely important for freedom of the
media, human rights and the development of democracy in Armenia."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS