By Armen Zakarian
A senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged the Armenian authorities on Tuesday to reopen a leading independent television station before next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Ambassador Roy Reeve, who heads the OSCE office in Yerevan, indicated that the A1+ channel’s return to the air is essential for the freedom and fairness of the polls.
The call followed a further delay in the holding of a long-awaited bidding for several television frequencies which was seen as the only way of reinstating the channel critical of President Robert Kocharian. The tender, originally scheduled for November 18, was suspended by an Armenian economic court under dubious circumstances, prompting speculation that the authorities want to keep A1+ from covering the February 19 presidential elections.
“We have expressed the view that we would like the tender to be held as quickly as possible so that all television companies can be operational in advance of the presidential and parliamentary elections,” Reeve told a news conference.
“We have also made our view clear that we would prefer no more court proceedings or appeals to take place, which might delay the holding of the tender until the new year,” he said, effectively questioning the legitimacy of the court actions.
The court injunction halting the bidding followed a lawsuit filed by another private channel, Noyan Tapan, against the presidentially appointed National Commission on Television and Radio which distributes broadcasting licenses. The commission had refused to allow Noyan Tapan to take part in the contest on the grounds that the latter did not specify the frequency it is bidding for.
In a verdict further delaying the frequency tender, the Court of Economic Arbitration endorsed Noyan Tapan’s arguments on December 2, ruling that the regulatory commission must accept its bid. But with Armenian courts rarely challenging government bodies, the move led A1+ to implicitly accuse Noyan Tapan of cutting a secret deal with the presidential administration.
The commission has strongly denied the claims. Its chairman, Grigor Amalian, has criticized the court verdict but has not yet decided whether to appeal it at a higher court, something which would drag out the proceedings for several more weeks.
Reeve said that the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, which had criticized the scandalous closure of A1+ last April, will issue a special statement on press freedom in Armenia, and the fate of A1+ in particular, later this week. He also stressed that media coverage of the upcoming elections will be an “important part” of the OSCE’s election monitoring in Armenia.
The Western-led OSCE monitoring missions have strongly criticized most Armenian presidential and legislative elections held since 1995. None of them were judged “free and fair.” More than 100 OSCE observers are expected monitor the February polls.