By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg and Emil Danielyan
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is to discuss on Tuesday a report on the state of press freedom in its member countries that criticizes Armenia’s law on broadcasting and deplores the closure of the A1+ television station.
The report drafted by one of the PACE’s standing commissions refers to A1+ as Armenia’s “best known” independent channel. It notes that the once popular television will be unable to cover next month’s presidential elections because of repeated delays in the holding of a planned tender for several television frequencies.
The bidding, originally slated for November, was cancelled under dubious circumstances, stripping A1+ of its last chance to resume broadcasts before the February 19 vote. A state commission on broadcasting appointed by President Robert Kocharian has set January 31 as a new date for the contest following a two-month court dispute with another private TV station, Noyan Tapan.
Noyan Tapan had sued the National Commission on Television and Radio for its refusal to accept the channel’s bid on a minor technicality. But it eventually agreed to follow bidding rules set by the body.
However, there were some indications on Monday that the TV tender may again be postponed after another frequency bidder, Yerevan TV, confirmed that it is considering a lawsuit against the commission over similar procedural issues. Yerevan is reportedly owned by government-linked individuals and supports the authorities.
Meanwhile, a Western diplomatic source in the Armenian capital confirmed that Kocharian promised the Council of Europe and other Western-led organizations last summer that A1+ will get an opportunity to return to the air before the presidential vote. The official questioned the sincerity of Noyan Tapan’s motives, arguing that the latter could have easily adapted to the bidding rules instead of opting for a court action.
The Council of Europe’s secretary general, Walter Schwimmer, likewise expressed confidence in July that “a positive solution will soon be found” to the A1+ issue.
The report to be debated by the PACE also criticizes a 2001 Armenian law on television and radio which critics believe gives the regulatory commission too much discretionary authority in the distribution of broadcasting licenses. It further notes that the state-run Armenian Public Television remains a mouthpiece of “official propaganda” despite a major reorganization in 2001.