The senior U.S. diplomat in Yerevan as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have expressed concerns about the legislation, which Human Rights Watch has called a blow to media freedom in general.
Hundreds of press-freedom advocates protested the proposals outside parliament today in Yerevan.
Inside, opposition parties sought changes to scrap the draft legislation's apparent restrictions on RFE/RL broadcasts. But pro-government parties are reported to have amended that new language to restore the text's original intent.
"If, by the election time, an important source of extra information, of additional information is eliminated, that would significantly weaken the pluralism of access to information by Armenians." -- the OSCE's representative on media freedom
A final vote appeared likely to slip to July 3.
The proposals would ban foreign broadcasts on public television and radio and heavily tax domestic retransmission on private stations of foreign-made programs. Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's representative on media freedom, says it "would amount to a ban" on RFE/RL.
But Armenian officials say that's not the case. "This package, the change in the law on television and radio absolutely has no any relation with Azatutyun Radiokayan [Radio Liberty] and it can't have," Parliament Chairman Tigran Torosian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on June 30. "It is only about broadcasters."
Haraszti said officials including Torosian have told him the same thing.
But speaking to RFE/RL today in Yerevan, the OSCE official said he believes that the legislation will reduce the pluralism of media access enjoyed by Armenians.
If passed, Haraszti said the package is likely to negatively impact the assessment by election monitors of Armenian presidential polls, scheduled to be held in eight months' time.
"If, by the election time, an important source of extra information, of additional information is eliminated, that would significantly weaken the pluralism of access to information by Armenians," Haraszti said. "That does bear an effect, does mean something for the evaluation of elections."
Haraszti, speaking from Vienna, added that because Armenia as an OSCE member has made commitments to uphold free media, he will be compelled to cite the negative development in his next report to OSCE member states.
According to independent research, between 15 and 18 percent of the Armenian population over 15 years of age listens to RFE/RL's Armenian-language service every week.
"I believe that could be an occasion for me again to make a public remark," he said. "In any case, of course, the issue will figure in my report to the 56 ambassadors of the Permanent Council of the OSCE here in Vienna."
The legislation creates sharp disincentives for private Armenian radio stations to carry foreign broadcasters' programs. Private Armenian broadcasters would have to pay more than $200 in taxes each time they retransmit a program produced by a foreign media organization.
That is 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.
On June 30, the New York-based Human Rights Watch organization said the legislation would deal a blow to RFE/RL and to freedom of the media in general."
RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin says the legislation would "set a dangerous precedent for public media in all of the countries of the former Soviet Union."
The top U.S. diplomat in Yerevan, Charges d'Affaires Anthony Godfrey, has criticized the legislation as possibly harmful to Armenia's media environment. Asked by RFE/RL on June 29 what steps Washington might take to persuade Yerevan to reconsider, Godfrey declined to answer directly.
But he did mention the U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge account.
Opponents of the legislation fear it could silence foreign media (RFE/RL)
Under that program, Armenia currently qualifies for some $236 million in U.S. assistance. But Godfrey suggested that the program's board of directors, which bases its approval on issues such as media freedom, could reverse its previously positive assessment when it meets this year.
"The Millennium Challenge Corporation board meets this year and will determine every MCC country's continuing eligibility," Godfrey said. "The meeting is on December 4."
According to independent research, between 15 and 18 percent of the Armenian population over 15 years of age listens to RFE/RL's Armenian-language service every week. Respondents rate the radio the first or second most popular station along with Armenian Public Radio.
The legislation was originally presented by Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, who argued that no other country allows public radio broadcasts of foreign broadcasts.
Opponents of the legislation argued that many countries, including neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, do open their public airwaves to foreign media.
(RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report)
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."
LISTEN Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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