By Anush Martirosian and Hovannes Shoghikian
The Armenian parliament began debating on Tuesday a government bill that would prolong a de facto ban on the country’s main independent TV station, controversially pulled off the air in 2002, for at least two more years.
Under government-drafted legal amendments, the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) will be unable to hold tenders for broadcasting licenses until July 2010.
The government says the proposed measure is necessary for expediting Armenia’s planned transition to mandatory digital broadcasting by 2012. But critics believe its real purpose is to fend off renewed Western pressure for the reopening of A1+, the only national TV channel that had regularly aired criticism of the government.
A1+ lost its broadcasting frequency in a supposedly competitive tender that was won by a pro-government media outlet. Its numerous attempts since then to win another frequency have been blocked by the government-controlled NCTR, reinforcing the widely held belief that the outcome of the 2002 bidding was politically motivated.
In a largely symbolic verdict, the European Court of Human Rights last June fined the Armenian government 20,000 euros ($30,000) for the ban and said the NCTR’s consistent rejection of A1+ applications ran counter to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court stopped short of obligating the Armenian authorities to allow A1+ to resume broadcasts.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) took a similar line later in June, backing away from its earlier intention to demand that the authorities at last “grant a broadcasting license to A1+.” A resolution adopted by the PACE only contained a general call for the fairness and transparency of frequency tenders administered by the NCTR.
The National Assembly’s likely approval of the proposed amendments to Armenia’s Law on Television and Radio would mean that there will no be such tenders until July 20, 2010.
Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian, who presented the bill to the parliament, denied any link between it and A1+. But members of the parliament’s tiny opposition minority claimed the opposite, however, saying that the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian is thereby showing its intolerance of dissent.
Mesrop Movsesian, A1+’s owner and chief executive, agreed. “All that is being done to make sure that there are no more tenders and to prevent A1+ from returning to the air for at least a couple of more years,” Movsesian told RFE/RL.
“This shows the authorities are so worried about the emergence of an alternative voice that they are again taking steps to stifle freedom of speech in Armenia,” he claimed.