Dear President Sargsyan,
Human Rights Watch is writing to express its concern regarding the negative impact on media pluralism and public access to diversity of information and opinion in Armenia, recent amendments to the "Law on Television and Radio," are likely to have. We urge you to refrain from signing the law and instead return it to the National Assembly and urge them to continue their deliberations with the aim of bringing any and all amendments into compliance with Armenia's international obligations on freedom of expression.
While we appreciate the government's intent to regulate Armenia's ongoing transition to mandatory digital broadcasting, it is unfortunate that the rushed legislative process did not allow for full incorporation of concerns expressed by civil society and Armenia's international partners, including the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).
We are first concerned that the amendments to the law will reduce the number of television stations able to broadcast in Armenia from 22 to 18. The changes in the legislation could have created room for more actors to participate in provision of media facilitated by digitalization, yet reducing the number of television broadcasters poses the opposite risk of limiting media pluralism. There is a serious concern that the reduction in available television stations may particularly disadvantage new television broadcasters, especially as the amendments indicate that preference in future licensing competitions should be given to existing broadcasters or those with at least three years' experience.
Armenia's civil society members and international partners have also criticized numerous other aspects of the amendments, including the failure to require the National Television and Radio Commission (NTRC) to provide explanations for its decisions to reject broadcasting license applications, which would increase transparency of the licensing process. The amendments also do not address long-standing concerns that the law does not ensure pluralism in the selection and appointment of members of the National Television and Radio Commission (NTRC), which is responsible for the granting of licenses.
In a welcome step, during the final reading of the law the National Assembly convened a working group to revise the law which included non-governmental organizations and opposition parliamentarians. However, the rushed legislative process did not allow for a thorough public discussion of the draft. On June 10, a group of Yerevan-based ambassadors of European countries urged the Armenian government to "continue working closely with civil society, the Council of Europe and OSCE experts with a view to bringing the law further into line with international standards." However, the National Assembly adopted the bill in an emergency session later that same night.
The draft Law on Television and Radio was developed by the Armenian Ministry of Economy and adopted by the National Assembly in the first reading on May 20th. Armenia was obliged to amend the law on Television and Radio following a June 2008 European Court of Human Rights judgment finding Armenia in violation of Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) as a result of the NTRC's repeated denials of a broadcast license to A1+, an independent television station. The court found that the Armenian legislature did not provide sufficient protection against an arbitrary decision of the licensing authorities. A1+ was taken off the air in April 2002 and has not been able to resume broadcasting despite the ECtHR judgment.
In the interest of ensuring Armenia's full compliance with the ECtHR judgment and protecting media pluralism, we urge you to use your discretionary power and veto the amendments to the Law On Television and Radio. We strongly hope that the National Assembly will heed the concerns of Armenia's civil society, the OSCE, and others and make the necessary changes to bring the legislation fully into line with Armenia's international obligations.
Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia Division