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Controversial Armenian TV Bill Passes First Hurdle

YEREVAN -- The Armenian parliament has approved a controversial bill which local press groups say enables the government to tighten its grip on broadcast media, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The National Assembly passed the legislation at the first reading on May 20 despite serious concerns from opposition lawmakers as well as members of the progovernment majority, including speaker Hovik Abrahamian.

"I understand the concerns of my colleagues because we received the bill a bit late," Abrahamian said on May 19 during a parliamentary debate over the package of government-drafted amendments to the law regulating television and radio. He was referring to the government's desire to push the bill through the assembly under a so-called accelerated procedure that precludes its discussion by a parliamentary committee.

The proposed amendments are meant to regulate Armenia's ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, which is due to be completed by July 2013. The process began in July 2010 with a controversial two-year suspension of fresh tenders for broadcasting licenses.

In a joint statement issued ahead of the parliamentary debate on the bill, Armenia's three leading media associations expressed serious concern about the legislation.

They are particularly worried about amendments that would limit the number of TV stations in Yerevan and outside the capital to 18 and 9, respectively. There are currently several more channels operating in the country.

The statement also said the amendments do not clarify "terms and procedures" for the holding of competitive tenders for a broadcasting license. It said the parliament should not pass the bill in its current form.

Both Abrahamian and Deputy Economy Minister Mushegh Tumasian, who represented the government during the debates, assured lawmakers that the bill may still undergo major changes as a result of planned hearings.

The issue was high on the agenda of this week's visit to Yerevan by Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media. "It is essential that the digital switchover is carried out in a transparent manner and that the tendering procedures are made public well in advance to ensure broadcast pluralism," an OSCE statement quoted her as telling Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian on May 18.

"It is essential that the legislation to be adopted grants access to diverse information and high quality programs," Mijatovic said. She welcomed the Armenian authorities' stated readiness to "consider" a recent OSCE assessment of the bill.