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Armenia: Journalist Says Media Law Is Restrictive

Washington, 23 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading Armenian journalist says his nation's current media law is outdated, and journalists are hampered by restrictive legislation which limits freedom of speech.

Boris Navasardian, President of the Yerevan Press Club -- an organization of professional journalists in Armenia -- made the comment during an interview with RFE/RL in Washington. He is in the U.S. to attend a conference and speak about the press issues in Armenia today.

Navasardian says that Armenia's media law adopted in 1991 is a "Soviet-style legislation."

However, until the legislation is changed, Navasardian says, journalists in Armenia must act according to the law even if it hampers their ability to report freely and objectively.

Navasardian says the press club, which was founded in 1995, is trying to change those laws. He says the club has drafted a model press law which was first submitted to the Armenian parliament in December 1996 for review and discussion. A newer version was submitted again in November 1997, he adds.

Navasardian says one of the most important parts of the model law involves the registration of the press.

Currently, he says, media outlets in Armenia cannot operate until after they have applied for registration and have received -- in hand -- a license and certificate.

Explains Navasardian: "If you apply for registration, and if within two weeks there are no legal objections from authorities to your existence, then you should be able to operate without having to wait for a printed certificate and license. This is very important because in previous times we had a lot of cases where registration took more than one year."

Another important aspect of the new media law, says Navasardian, is eliminating the government's right to close a media outlet.

Navasardian says that the government may still maintain the ability to prescribe penalties, including financial ones, but it should never be allowed to close it.

Additionally, Navasardian says the model law deals with another troubling problem in Armenia -- blaming journalists for the revelation of so-called "state secrets."

He says Armenia currently has a law on divulging official secrets which holds journalists, as well as officials, responsible for the leaking of classified materials.

Says Navasardian: "We think that journalists should never be responsible for spreading state secrets, as it is now, because the journalist is not the holder of state secrets. The state officials are responsible for state secrets -- so, they must keep them. And if they release them, it is not the fault of the journalist who disseminates the information as long as he finds it is in the public interest."

Overall, Navasardian says that he believes things are changing for the better for the media in Armenia.

He says coverage of the 1998 presidential elections in Armenia was very different from that of 1996.

For example, Navasardian says that during the 1998 elections, all candidates conducted live interviews -- a big change from 1996 where some candidates had their interviews pre-recorded and edited.

Navasardian says: "We see that step by step, things are improving and this psychology of loyalty to the government, to power, is decreasing."

Navasardian says he is intrigued by the way the media works in America and the fact that it does not rely so heavily on laws that spell out the rights of journalists.

He says the American media experience is unique in the sense that it depends on the rights to free expression set out in the U.S. Constitution.

He says that Armenian journalists want to have a precise description of what their rights and obligations are written into the law.

Concludes Navasardian: "When the Armenian media will be so powerful that it can defend itself without any regulations, then maybe we also will not need a media law."