By Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian dismissed on Tuesday domestic and international criticism of Armenian authorities’ latest refusal to reopen the country’s most outspoken independent television, saying through a spokesman that the decision was utterly legal.
In his first official reaction to the controversy, Kocharian indicated that he will not lobby a presidentially appointed body regulating broadcasting to allow the A1+ channel as well as the Noyan Tapan TV station to return to the air. He also implied that he is untroubled by possible negative consequences of renewed Western questioning of his commitment to the freedom of expression.
“It is a bit surprising that the issue has been so much politicized,” the Armenian leader’s press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, told RFE/RL. “The Council of Europe and the OSCE statements on the refusal to give the A1+ and Noyan Tapan broadcasting licenses would have been of greater concern if the National Commission on Television and Radio had been accused of making political and not legal decisions.”
The presidential spokesman said Kocharian believes that the commission, appointed by him in 2002, is an “independent body” and he can therefore not interfere in its work. Those who are unhappy with the commission’s decisions can take it to the court, he added.
However, the commission is not perceived to be independent and objective by many in Armenia and outside it. Hence, the barrage of criticism directed at the Armenian authorities since its July 18 decision to reject yet another A1+ bid for a broadcasting frequency. Both the Council of Europe and the OSCE deplored the decision as a serious blow to press freedom in Armenia.
“The fact that both companies have been unable to broadcast for well over a year raises concern about the pluralistic nature of the broadcast media in Armenia,” a personal representative of the OSCE chairman-in-office, Netherlands Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said late last week.
For his part, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer implicitly accused Yerevan of failing to keep its reported promise to reopen A1+ before this year’s elections. "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 said.
Spokesman Kocharian would not say whether the Armenian president had indeed given such assurances. His comments suggest an apparent disagreement between Kocharian and some of his leading political allies who feel that the outcome of the July bidding damaged Armenia’s international reputation already tarnished by the disputed 2003 elections.
Leaders of the governing Dashnaktsutyun and Republican parties have warned in particular that it will complicate their efforts to avert Council of Europe sanctions against Armenia this autumn. They have publicly accused the broadcasting commission of bias and have pledged to seek amendments to Armenia’s controversial law on television and radio.
Such amendments are also proposed by the opposition which says A1+ will remain off the air as long as the commission charged with issuing and revoking frequencies is formed by Kocharian. A senior opposition lawmaker, Shavarsh Kocharian, told RFE/RL on Tuesday that he will propose that the commission members are appointed by the parliament factions, rather than the president of the republic.
“When everyone is guided by a single individual’s interests the consequences are always disastrous,” he said. “But when the interests are different, there is a greater likelihood of fair solutions.”
The proposed changed was already rejected by the previous Armenian parliament earlier this year.