By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian, facing domestic and international concerns about press freedom in Armenia, has pledged to help the independent A1+ channel resume its broadcasts soon, according to senior Council of Europe officials who met him on Thursday.
Ambassador Pietro Ago, who leads an ad hoc group monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its Council of Europe membership obligations, indicated that A1+ will stand a good chance of returning to the air if it bids for a new frequency later this year.
The popular channel, which was often critical of the authorities, lost its original frequency on April 2 in a controversial tender conducted by a presidentially appointed commission on television and radio. Its de facto closure, widely blamed on Kocharian, has raised fears for the future of independent media in Armenia.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a two-day fact-finding visit to Armenia, Ago said the Council of Europe, which accepted Armenia into ranks in January 2001, shares those concerns and conveyed them to Kocharian and other officials in Yerevan. “We have stated that although we recognize that the withdrawal of the frequency from this station was done in accordance with the law, it has had negative consequences in that it prevents the opposition from using the media for expressing its views,” he said.
“We reached an understanding [with Kocharian] that the Council of Europe experts will work with Armenian experts to ensure that when new frequencies are allotted, A1+ can successfully participate in those tenders. So this problem will be solved in the near future,” Ago added.
The A1+ staff maintain that the April 2 tender took place in violation of Armenia’s law on broadcasting and that its outcome was predetermined by Kocharian who they claim wants to silence critical media outlets ahead of next year’s presidential elections. However, their appeal against that decision was turned down by an Armenian economic court which thus sided with the commission.
The closure of A1+ has also been criticized by the United States and leading international media watchdogs. In addition, it sparked off a series of street protests by Armenia’s leading opposition parties.
Ago said that despite the A1+ affair Armenia is, on the whole, meeting conditions for its hard-won accession to the respected Strasbourg-based organization promoting human rights and democracy. But he cautioned that there has recently been a “slowdown in the implementation” of steps that Armenia pledged to take when it joined the Council of Europe.
He said that primarily applies to Yerevan’s commitment to amend the country’s constitution and enact several laws aimed at the democratization of its political system.
A nationwide referendum on proposed amendments in the constitution was initially due to take place this year. But the Armenian authorities have indicated recently that they need more time to expedite the process.
“I have to say that the explanation given to us by the government satisfies us in the sense that it is better to have amendments when they are fully known by the people and generally acceptable than to force them through without due preparation,” Ago said. But he stressed that Armenia must enact new election laws before the approaching local, presidential and parliamentary elections.
He said the authorities must also formally abolish the death penalty, another key Council of Europe requirement to Armenia.