One of the most effective ways for authorities to control freedom of speech is to adopt and implement laws and other legal mechanisms that try to curb the work of the media. In the last two months alone, Armenian society lost a significant portion of achievements that were registered in the last ten years in terms of government accountability and transparency.
Starting in 2017, partial attempts have been made to limit the freedom of the media through legal regulations. In the past, the journalistic community occasionally faced the threat of excessive legal limitations to their work, however, thanks to being informed on time, was able to reverse or at minimum ensure that their opinions were heard. Meanwhile, in January 2017, amendments to the Law about Personal Data Protection, which without prevarication formulated new legal relationships for the press, reporters found out about it two months after the amendments, by chance, because the law was adopted secretly and quickly. The amendments to that law were never publicized on any public platform nor were any discussions had.
According to these changes, a provision in Article 3 of that law, which secured important protections was removed, according to which the development of personal data for journalistic purposes was placed outside of the regulation of the law and personal data for journalistic purposes which had a supreme value….the amendments to the law created a dangerous situation, when in fact, when a journalist is gathering, storing or publicizing personal information of an official or any other individual, he/she is obligated to get the express permission of that person. This does not correspond with the important responsibility of the press – investigate, publish, alert the public about cases of expenditures from the state budget for personal purposes.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. On March 23 of this year, the National Assembly during a special session adopted and on March 30 the now former President signed two bills, which seriously threaten the freedom of information and limit the activities of journalists. These are the law on enacting amendments and additions on The Structure and Activity of the Government and Local Governance of the City of Yerevan. These envision that government sessions will be held behind closed doors and the second one will create restrictive conditions for those media representatives who report on City Council sessions. Moreover, it was affirmed that members of the government will not be allowed to give an interview to reporters about issues being discussed in the government session without the explicit permission of the prime minister.
The only official basis for the implementation of these laws was that reporters were constraining members of the government and city council and hindering their work during sessions.
Yes, the media must have a constraining role, so that the leader of the government leads not with the personal interest of certain people, but rather in the interests of the entire public. This is the role of the media. There was not a single official assessment, justification as to what was the necessity of the adoption of these laws or if there was even a societal demand. I think that the government will be forced to present these to the European Court of Human Rights, after media organizations bring the case before the ECHR.
A group of media organizations issued a statement where they noted that the ruling coalition has ignored the criticisms of journalists and civil society structures regarding the adoption of these laws. By the way, by placing these bills on the agenda of the parliament, not a single public discussion was held. Moreover, the amendments and additions to the Law about Yerevan City Local Governance, which relate fundamentally to the media and contradict the principles of transparency of DIMs, were adopted in open violate of the current procedure of parliament. Media organizations announced that they were initiative a process and realize all possible steps to repeal the regressive provisions of the law.
We now have a factual situation, where civil society is deprived of any mechanism to know about any legislative initiative that will negatively impact democracy Today, the government can propose any kind of a bill and within a day or two, it will be adopted by the NA, without taking into account or paying heed to public opinion. And if tomorrow, the government proposes a bill to prevent the criticism of state officials, that bill will turn into a law the very next day by parliament. Civil society has absolutely no levers to reverse this.
I believe that the strategic issue of the media community and society presently must be to take steps to recognize these steps as unconstitutional. On the one hand, the Constitutional Court must deem these laws to be unconstitutional and incompatible with the rights of the freedom of speech and expression. On the other hand, the media must become even more active and seriously begin to apply all the possibilities given for the freedom of information within RA law and through which flood state bodies with written questions to receive information, demanding the delivery of information regarding any issue of public importance so that state bodies are forced to comply in a proper and complete manner, the requirements of the law on Information; they should publish, through self initiatives all the information of public importance. This should be the united demand of the entire media community in the country. The media must oppose
The press must make a joint statement to oppose legal acts that grossly limit its rights.