By Emil Danielyan
A senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation urged the Armenian authorities on Friday to repeal legal amendments that prolonged a de facto ban on the country’s main independent TV station for at least two more years.
Under government-drafted amendments approved by the Armenian parliament earlier this month, the National Commission on Television and Radio (NCTR) is not allowed to hold fresh tenders for broadcasting licenses until July 2010.
The government says the measure is necessary for expediting Armenia’s transition to mandatory digital broadcasting by 2012. But government 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 before being pulled off the air in 2002.
Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, also questioned the official rationale for the move in a letter to President Serzh Sarkisian released by his office. "By cutting off any potential applicant broadcasters from entering the market until 2010, the limited pluralism in Armenia's broadcasting sector will be further diminished," he said.
"A moratorium on new licenses for analogue transmission should not be the first step in the transition to digital broadcasting. Digitalization should not be allowed to reduce diversity and plurality or preserve a lack thereof. If the broadcasting landscape in a country is not sufficiently pluralistic and diverse, it would be appropriate to delay digitalization and undertake other reforms first," added Haraszti.
A1+ lost its broadcasting frequency in a supposedly competitive tender that was won by a pro-government media outlet. Its numerous attempts to win another frequency have been blocked by the government-controlled NCTR since then.
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 violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court stopped short of explicitly ordering the Armenian authorities to allow A1+ to resume broadcasts, though.
Haraszti said the freeze on issuing broadcasting licenses runs counter to the court ruling. The Vienna-based official also pointed to a recent resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that urged Armenia to "ensure an open, fair and transparent licensing procedure" and allow A1+ to apply for a new license.
(Photolur photo: Miklos Haraszti)