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 September 26, 2003 

Minding the Media: New law draws protests from journalists

Journalists protested the new media law.

A controversial bill on Mass Media adopted by the National Assembly in the first reading on September 24 roused a hot protest by a group of Armenian journalists.

The journalists claimed that the law adopted by a vote of 69 deputies for, 10 against and one abstention is to deadlock the journalists freedom in Armenia.

The bill drafted by the Justice Ministry last April was rejected by the previous Parliament. The law caused aggressive protests of most of the local journalists, and lawmakers preferred not to conflict with the journalists before the parliamentary elections in May of this year.

The author of the bill, Deputy Justice Minister Ashot Abovyan believed the new bill underwent serious changes comparing to its first draft, and corresponds to European standards of freedom of speech and press.

"The acting law of 1991 was not corresponding to present realities. Besides with the country's admission to the Council of Europe there aroused a necessity to bring the law in conformity with European standards," Abovyan said.

He noted among the positive changes that the document provides for liquidating the institute of mass media registration. Instead it demands only that mass media publish information about its location and the quantity of issues.

Media circulation can be limited only in conditions of a military situation and in case of a threat to the national security. Also, regarding confidentiality of sources, a journalist is required to reveal the source of information only in a legal way in case it threatens the public interests.

Abovyan says its up to publications to protect their journalists..

However some journalists have another opinion and contrary to bill's authors considers the law unacceptable.

A group of journalists mostly from the National Press Club, (NPC) which campaigns for media freedom, organized a picket in front of the National Assembly September 23 and 24, shouting "No to censorship".

The journalists protested in particular the bill's provision demanding to disclose the sources of financing and sponsorship, which they consider had a political motivation.

According to the provision of financial transparency of the law, the media outlet is obliged to publish an annual report, including names of individuals and organization who sponsor them, before March of each year.

Further the journalists are unsatisfied that the law regulates only the duties and obligations of journalists and there are no provision on journalists' rights and protection.

Abovyan argued the protest, saying that it was not a subject of the law to protect journalists' rights, but rather the obligation of their publications.

Nicol Pashinyan, editor of Haikakan Jhamanak newspaper said that the bill contained many defects and could lead the Armenian mass media to a deadlock.

The NPC stated that an alternative draft drawn by the organization was ignored by the lawmakers. In their turn the legislators said they received the alternative draft on the eve of the voting and had no time to get through details. They also noted that the draft proposed by journalists could hardly be called a law because of its format and other shortcomings which they said were obvious even from the first glance.

Commenting on the journalists protest the Speaker of the National Assembly Arthur Baghdasaryan expressed his readiness to discuss the bill with all interested media organizations and amend it in two months before the next readings.

However the protesting journalists doubt if the changes are possible.

"If they were ready to make more changes why did they not make them before the bill entered Parliament," questioned Vardan Vardanyan from NPC.

Hovanisyan: " . . . not for journalists."

Further Vardanyan considers inadmissible the provision allowing criminal prosecution against a journalist for slander. According to the law a person or organization can refute information regarded as slander within a three-month period.

"If a person close to Government and President is unhappy with the information published about him he can easily make things different within three months to refute it," Vardanyan said.

The protesting journalists said that, for example, an official could sell property within the three-month period, and then later accuse media of defamation.

The journalists think that authorities, under the pretense of law, aim to persecute the press.

"This draft is not for journalists but rather for those who want to oppress the freedom of speech in Armenia," said Hmayak Hovanisyan from the oppositional National Unity Party, who joined protestors.

Some journalists say that whatever the law is the authorities always can find a loophole to press the unwanted media as it happened when they banned the A1+TV company

However the deputies who voted for the bill call it liberal.

Hranush Hakobyan, the chairwoman of the parliament committee on science, education and media noted that the Armenian law on media is multiple times more liberal than that of in Russia.

The protesters issued a statement saying they will continue to promote the alternative bill and will organize more pickets.

According to Agnes
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