By Anna Saghabalian and Harry Tamrazian in Prague
Visiting senior representatives of the Council of Europe warned the Armenian authorities on Monday against effectively pulling RFE/RL off the air, saying that its Armenian-language broadcasts are essential for political pluralism in the country.
The members of a Council of Europe body monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership obligations to the Strasbourg-based organization arrived in Yerevan on a regular fact-finding mission that comes in the aftermath of the May 12 parliamentary elections.
Armenian leaders say that their handling of the vote, described as largely democratic by European observers, marked significant progress towards the fulfillment of those commitments and hoped to earn corresponding praise from the so-called Ago Group. However, the visit was clearly overshadowed by their controversial drive to amend the Armenian laws on broadcasting and state duties in a way that could end RFE/RL’s widely accessible broadcasts.
Ambassador Per Sjogren, head of the group representing the Council of Europe’s decision-making Committee of Ministers, made a special statement on the issue at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. He said the planned ban on retransmission of foreign broadcasts by Armenian state radio could result in a “serious and adverse impact” on press freedom.
Sjogren also criticized the government proposal to impose heavy fees on private radio stations engaging in such re-broadcasts. He said the “disproportionately high broadcasting fees” would strongly discourage those stations from doing business with foreign broadcasters like RFE/RL.
“This approach would be contrary to the public interest and the important contribution that independent and free media should make to fostering public debate, political pluralism, and diverse opinions,” the Swedish diplomat said.
Expressing his personal position on the matter, Oskanian again voiced support for continued unfettered activities of RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I hope that a solution will be found as a result of which Radio Liberty will continue its broadcasts in Armenia,” he said.
Oskanian also promised to convey the Council of Europe concerns to his government.
Sjogren and other members of the Ago Group are due to meet President Robert Kocharian and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian on Tuesday. RFE/RL’s future in Armenia was high on the agenda of their meetings earlier on Monday with Armenian opposition parties and non-governmental organizations.
In Vienna, meanwhile, the top official at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, reiterated his concerns about the draft amendments in question. In a phone interview with RFE/RL, he said they could “significantly weaken Armenians’ access to information.”
Haraszti also said that he will convey his concerns to the OSCE’s Vienna-based governing Permanent Council in a special report.
(Photolur photo: Per Sjogren.)