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Armenia: Restrictive Foreign-Media Legislation Falls In Parliament

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Demonstrators against the bill outside parliament on July 2 (RFE/RL) July 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Armenian parliament has failed to pass a bill that would have placed severe restrictions on foreign broadcast media, particularly RFE/RL.


The legislation would have banned foreign broadcasts on Armenian public television and radio and heavily taxed their retransmission on private stations.


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had said the proposals, which passed its first reading on June 29, amounted to a "ban on RFE/RL" and could have made Armenia's March 2008 presidential elections less free and fair.


The measure didn't pass in today's second and final reading because opposition, independent, and even some pro-government lawmakers blocked a quorum by boycotting two separate votes.


MORE: Coverage in Armenian from RFE/RL's Armenian Service.


Human Rights Watch , meanwhile, had called the legislative package a potential blow to media freedom in general.


But today's failed vote in parliament, where just enough lawmakers boycotted the vote to prevent a quorum, means the government must start over if it wants to try again to pass the legislation. That involves redrafting the proposals and resubmitting them again for a new first reading.


Victor Dalakian, an independent member of parliament, was one of the more outspoken critics of the legislation introduced by the government.


"The minority proved that quality is more important than quantity, and this would be a lesson for the parliamentary majority, that it should respect one of the most important rights: liberty," Dalakian told RFE/RL.


But it wasn't just the minority that doomed the draft legislation.


It didn't pass in today's second and final reading because opposition, independent, and even some pro-government lawmakers blocked a quorum by boycotting two separate votes.


In the first attempt, only 64 votes were cast (63 for, none against, one abstention) in the 131-member parliament. In the second try, 65 votes were cast (63 for, none against, two abstentions).


Both fell short of the 66 votes necessary for a quorum.


The votes came one day after the U.S. State Department weighed in. On July 2, following a question during a press briefing, the State Department issued a statement in which it suggested the proposed legislation was unlikely to further Armenia's "stated desire for continued democratization, particularly in the wake of the May parliamentary elections that marked a step forward even as they reflected the need for further improvements toward democratic standards."


The demonstration in Yerevan on July 2 (RFE/RL)

"We are pleased that there will now be more time for civil society to engage with Armenian lawmakers on this issue," Tom Mittnacht, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, told RFE/RL after the vote today. "We appreciate the substantive and active dialogue we have had with the speaker of the assembly. We are happy that Radio Liberty will be able to continue broadcasting."


Speaker Tigran Torosian and other officials had argued that the legislation would actually not have affected RFE/RL broadcasts. But that position, given the legislation's wording, left observers both inside and outside the country puzzled.


That's because the legislation clearly spelled out sharp disincentives for private Armenian radio stations to carry foreign broadcasters' programs. They would have had to pay more than $200 in taxes each time they retransmitted a program produced by a foreign media organization.


That is about 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.


(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report)

The Erosion Of CIS Press Freedom
Prominent Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov being arrested in Almaty last month (RFE/RL)

FROM BAD TO WORSE. RFE/RL and Freedom House experts held a panel discussion at which they analyzed the erosion of press freedom in many CIS countries. According to Freedom House rankings, in 1994, six of the 12 CIS countries were rated "partly free"; by 2004, 11 of the 12 were rated "not free."


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