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The Armenian parliament should not adopt two draft laws that would effectively ban future broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a key source of independent information in that country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The first, an amendment to the law “On Television and Radio” prohibits retransmission of foreign broadcasts on Armenian Public Television and Radio frequencies. The second, an amendment to the law “On State Taxes” establishes heavy fees for private companies that air foreign broadcasts.
Both draft laws passed a first reading on Friday in the National Assembly of Armenia, but must undergo a second reading, expected on Monday or Tuesday, before they become law.

“These new laws clearly restrict access to a crucial independent news source for many Armenians and deal a serious blow to RFE/RL and to freedom of the media in general,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The parliament should under no circumstances pass this bill in the second reading.”

The parliament’s actions appear to specifically target RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, the only foreign broadcaster that relies on Armenian National Radio, the country’s public radio station, to reach the majority of its audience.
RFE/RL is one of the only independent broadcast media outlets remaining in Armenia. Although there is a vibrant print media, the government maintains close control over the much more accessible broadcast media, and recently closed the last independent television station, A1+, in 2002.

RFE/RL is also occasionally broadcast via some private radio stations in the country’s capital, Yerevan, and surrounding regions, but under the under the proposed laws, private Armenian broadcasters would pay more than US$200 in taxes each time they retransmit a program produced by a foreign media organization. This fee is 70 times more than broadcasters must pay for a locally made program.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, criticized the bills, saying that they infringed Armenia’s commitments to safeguard media pluralism and access to information, and called on the Armenian authorities to drop them. Opposition politicians in Armenia lamented the parliament’s decision to pass the bills and charged the government with trying to control the media.

The two bills are incompatible with Armenia’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Article 10 of the ECHR guarantees the right “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” This right can only be restricted for limited and specific reasons such as national security or public safety. The restrictions placed on the rights of expression and imparting of information by the bills do not meet these requirements. The importance of the rights protected by Article 10 has been repeatedly emphasized by the European Court of Human Rights. The court maintains that freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and that the media plays a pre-eminent role in a state governed by the rule of law. The court insists that any efforts by a government to restrict freedom of expression be strictly scrutinized and the reason convincingly established.

“By passing these laws, Armenia risks violating its international commitments to freedom of expression and the media,” said Cartner. “As Armenia prepares for presidential elections in 2008, the world will certainly be watching to see if the government respects freedom of the media and other freedoms necessary for a free and fair vote.”

The move is not the first effort by the Armenian government to limit independent media. The independent television station A1+ lost its broadcasting license in 2002, after regularly airing criticism of the government, and lost 12 subsequent tenders for television and radio frequencies. In June 2006, A1+, which produced a weekly newspaper and maintains a website, was forced to vacate its offices, after losing a court case in 2005 challenging a notice of eviction.

Human rights groups have reported violence against journalists in retaliation for their work, and in September a court sentenced Arman Babajanian, editor of the opposition newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan, to four years in prison for failing to serve the compulsory two years of military service. Although Babajanian admitted to forging documents in 2002 in order to evade military service, the harsh sentence is suspected to be retribution for the journalist’s persistent criticism of government policies (draft evaders are usually sentenced to between two and three years in prison).

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