YEREVAN -- The Armenian parliament has begun debating a controversial bill regulating radio and television broadcasts, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Critics of the package of sweeping draft amendments to the law on radio and television say it would enable the authorities to tighten their control over news reporting by local public and private broadcasters.
Debate began on May 18 on the bill, which has drawn criticism from the country's leading media associations and some parliament deputies.
The government-drafted amendments are meant to regulate the country's ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, which is due to be completed by 2013.
The process supposedly began in July 2010 with a highly controversial two-year suspension of fresh tenders for broadcasting licenses. The freeze was strongly criticized by Armenian media groups and international organizations.
In a joint statement issued ahead of the parliament debate, the Yerevan Press Club, the Committee to Support Freedom of Speech, and the Internews media support group expressed serious concern about the bill.
They said they are particularly worried about amendments that would limit the number of TV stations in Yerevan and outside it to 18 and 9, respectively. There are several more channels currently operating in Armenia.
But the debate opened under a so-called "urgent procedure" that does not require the bill's consideration by a parliament committee. "Of course, it would have been much better if it was discussed and evaluated by our committee," Artak Davtian, the pro-government chairman of the panel dealing with science, education, and mass media, told RFE/RL.
The concerns of the media groups were shared not only by opposition deputies, but also lawmakers representing the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a junior partner in the country's governing coalition.
Naira Zohrabian, a senior BHK lawmaker, criticized the government's desire to remove some existing legal provisions, saying they actually protect press freedom.
Representatives of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party were more critical, accusing the Armenian authorities of seeking to further limit media independence. According to party representative Armen Martirosian, "The purpose of these measures is to ensure the authorities can use unlimited propaganda in the parliamentary elections of 2012 and presidential elections of 2013."
Even representatives of the largest parliament faction representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia did not rush to endorse the bill. Deputy parliament speaker Samvel Nikoyan acknowledged it contains "controversial provisions." "I don't want us to adopt a law which we might need to amend in the future," he said.