By Emil Danielyan
The Council of Europe added its voice on Wednesday to international criticism of the Armenian leadership’s refusal to reopen two leading independent TV stations, accusing it of failing to honor its repeated pledges to ensure media pluralism in Armenia.
In a strongly-worded statement from Strasbourg, the secretary general of the authoritative organization, Walter Schwimmer, expressed his “disappointment and concern” at the authorities’ refusal last week to award the A1+ and Noyan Tapan channels new broadcasting licenses. He warned that Armenia can not become “further integrated into Europe” unless its rulers “accept the expression of a broader range of opinions.”
The warning followed a similarly negative reaction of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the controversial decision on A1+ and Noyan Tapan taken by the National Commission on Television and Radio, a regulatory body appointed by President Robert Kocharian. The OSCE’s Vienna-based representative on press freedom, Freimut Duve, said it demonstrated that “freedom of expression in Armenia continues to be restricted.”
Schwimmer endorsed Duve’s conclusion, saying: “Unfortunately, this decision is another example of the insufficient respect for pluralism in Armenia, which has been troubling us for several months - in particular during the recent election campaigns.”
"Time and again we have been told that independent broadcasters would be given serious opportunities to become part of the audiovisual landscape in Armenia, only for applications such as these to be summarily dismissed," he added in an apparent reference to the Kocharian administration’s reported promises to allow A1+ to return to the air.
According to Western diplomats in Yerevan, Armenian officials had assured the Council of Europe that A1+, controversially taken off the air in April 2002, will be reopened before this year’s elections. In a July 2002 interview with RFE/RL, Schwimmer himself expressed confidence that “a positive solution will soon be found.”
However, the broadcasting commission’s July 18 decision all but ended the A1+ hopes for resuming broadcasts in the near future. The move, resulting from a tender for several TV frequencies, was denounced not only by local press groups but also leaders of the Dashnaktsutyun and Republican parties making up Armenia’s recently formed coalition government.
The latest twist in the A1+ affair is a further blow to Armenia’s international standing already damaged by its authorities’ handling of the disputed 2003 elections. The two coalition parties say they are worried that it could undermine the country’s position in the Council of Europe.
The commission which administers frequency tenders says it denied A1+ and Noyan Tapan new licenses because their pro-Kocharian competitors submitted stronger bids. A1+ insists, however, that the outcome of the bidding stemmed from Kocharian’s resolve to keep the only major Armenian TV critical of his policies off the air.