By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Officials from the Council of Europe met Tuesday with Armenian journalists on the second day of a fact-finding visit aimed at assessing Armenia’s progress towards the fulfillment of commitments it assumed when joining the organization in January 2001.
The two rapporteurs of an ad hoc monitoring group of the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Irena Bielohorska and Jerzy Jaskernia, discussed the state of press freedom in Armenia with more than a dozen local journalists representing various media outlets. The one-hour conversation touched on a broad range of controversial issues, including the closure of the independent A1+ television last April.
An A1+ reporter present at the meeting told the two officials that he and his colleagues do not trust the Armenian government’s apparent pledge to ensure the popular channel’s reopening before the February presidential elections.
Faced with international concerns about freedom of speech in Armenia, President Robert Kocharian and other top officials have told Council of Europe leaders that A1+ will stand a good chance of resuming its broadcasts if it bids for another air frequency this autumn. In an interview with RFE/RL in June, the organization’s secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, said he is confident that a “positive solution will soon be found” to the matter.
However, the A1+ staff say the authorities are doing everything to delay their return to the air before the February vote and thereby ensure Kocharian’s reelection.
A1+ is the only major privately-owned television station that was often critical of Kocharian and his government.
Bielohorska and Jaskernia are scheduled to meet on Thursday with Grigor Amalian, chairman of the National Commission on Television and Radio which stripped A1+ of its broadcasting license. All nine members of the commission were appointed by Kocharian.
On Monday, the PACE visited two prisons near Yerevan and met with representatives of local non-governmental organizations and non-traditional religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prosecuted and jailed in Armenia for their refusal to perform compulsory military service -- the main reason why the group is denied official registration.
The PACE officials, who already visited the country last year, will also meet with Kocharian, parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian and other government officials later this week. They are expected to present their findings in a report on the fulfilment of Armenia’s Council of Europe obligations next month.
Visiting Yerevan last month, Schwimmer said Armenia is making progress towards meeting the organization’s democratic standards but should do more to become a “member of the European family.” He urged the government to unconditionally abolish the death penalty, seek a quick solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, combat endemic corruption and ensure that the upcoming elections are democratic.