By Karine Kalantarian
A Strasbourg-based court has found the Armenian authorities at fault for repeatedly refusing to issue a broadcasting license to a television station, A1 Plus, that was controversially taken off the air in 2002 and has not been allowed to resume its work ever since.
In a press release issued by its Registrar on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights said it had held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the Armenian authorities’ refusal to grant the applicants’ requests for broadcasting licenses.
The Court also awarded the applicant company, Meltex Ltd, 20,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 10,000 euros for costs and expenses.
The case concerned the applicants’ complaint about being refused broadcasting licenses on seven separate occasions.
A1 Plus, the only national channel that was not controlled by the Armenian authorities, was taken off the air in April 2002 after losing its broadcasting frequency in a tender that was administered by a president-appointed regulatory body. The National Television and Radio Commission (NTRC) did not provide clear reasons for its decision then and has blocked all of the company’s subsequent attempts to win another frequency despite international pressure exerted on Yerevan.
The company’s founding chairman Mesrop Movsesian wrote to the NTRC requesting reasons for the refusals of Meltex’s bids, but the NTRC repeatedly replied that it only made decisions as to which was the best company, following which it granted or refused broadcasting licenses.
Meltex brought several sets of proceedings in which it sought to have those decisions annulled and complained about the NTRC’s failure to give written reasons for its decisions to refuse broadcasting licenses. Ultimately, the Armenian courts dismissed Meltex’s claims as unfounded, finding that the calls for tenders concerning those seven bands had been carried out in accordance with the law.
The Strasbourg-based Court that Meltex lodged an application with in August 2004 found that the NRTC’s refusal of Meltex’s bids for broadcasting licenses had effectively amounted to an “interference” with their freedom to impart information and ideas.
The Court considered that “a procedure which did not require a licensing body to justify its decisions did not provide adequate protection against arbitrary interference by a public authority with the fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
“The Court recalled the guidelines adopted by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in the domain of broadcasting regulation which called for open and transparent application of the regulations governing licensing procedures and specifically recommended that “[a]ll decisions taken ... by the regulatory authorities ... be ... duly reasoned”. Similarly, the Court pointed to a Resolution concerning Armenia by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly of 27 January 2004 which had concluded that “the vagueness of the law in force ha[d] resulted in the [NTRC] being given outright discretionary powers,” the statement said.
The Court therefore concluded that the interference with Meltex’s freedom to impart information and ideas, namely having been refused a broadcasting license on seven separate occasions, had not met the requirement of lawfulness under the European Convention, in violation of Article 10.
Since A1 Plus was controversially denied a new broadcasting license in 2002, New York-based watchdog Freedom House has ranked Armenia among countries with not free media.