By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The future of RFE/RL’s unfettered activities in Armenia again hung in the balance on Wednesday just three weeks after the Armenian parliament rejected a government bill that would have effectively banned the crucial retransmission of its programs by state radio.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, RFE/RL’s management and its Washington-based oversight board said the state-controlled Armenian Public Television and Radio (HHHR) has refused to sign a new retransmission agreement and could stop airing RFE/RL Armenian service programs on August 9.
HHHR declined to immediately confirm or deny this. The chairman of its governing board, Aleksan Harutiunian, said only that “Radio Liberty broadcasts in Armenia will not be stopped.” Harutiunian said the board will issue a statement later on Wednesday specifying whether or not RFE/RL will be pulled off the Armenian Public Radio air.
The Public Radio has retransmitted RFE/RL’s Armenian-language programs in accordance with a 1998 commercial agreement that lapsed last February. HHHR was offered to sign a new retransmission deal early this year.
The National Assembly unexpectedly failed to pass the government bill, widely criticized in and outside Armenia, on July 3 after several days of heated debates. The RFE/RL statement said that one week later HHHR “indicated that it planned to stop RFE/RL broadcasts on August 9, citing contractual and payment issues.” According to it, all these issues were resolved during ensued negotiations in Yerevan between HHHR officials and RFE/RL representatives.
“Our delegation was told there are no deadlines, and no threat was made to take RFE/RL programs off Public Radio,” James Glassman, chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) overseeing RFE/RL operations, was quoted as saying in the statement.
“Yet the contract remains unsigned, and our offers to make payment were refused,” Glassman said. “It seems clear that whatever is holding up an agreement has nothing to do with legal, contractual, or technical issues.”
“I think the issue is not closed and there are possibilities [of reaching agreement,]” parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, who is also a leading member of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK), told RFE/RL, commenting on the statement. Torosian said he thinks there is still “some hope” for a mutually acceptable settlement between the parties.
But the HHK’s junior partners in the governing coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), reiterated its opposition to RFE/RL’s continued use of Public Radio frequencies. “I believe that any radio or TV station must be able to operate in Armenia, but that must be done on a commercial basis,” said Vahan Hovannisian, a Dashnaktsutyun leader. “And giving the state’s [broadcasting] capacities to somebody else is beyond logic.”
“For Dashnaktsutyun, the top priority is Armenia’s interests,” added Hovannisian. “Radio Liberty is not acting against Armenia’s interests. But it is not acting for Armenia’s interests either.”
Opposition leaders, for their part, stood by their view that RFE/RL is the only Armenian-language broadcaster not controlled by the authorities in Yerevan and that the latter have made a political decision to severely restrict Armenians’ access to its news programs ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“They failed to do that through the National Assembly and are now trying to do that by other means,” said Victor Dallakian, a veteran opposition lawmaker who helped to block the controversial government bill. “This is a condemnable policy directed against freedom of speech.”
“The purpose of not renewing the [retransmission] contract is to keep our people misinformed and to propagate what they want,” charged Vazgen Manukian, another prominent opposition politician. “The values our people now need most now is freedom, integrity and the ability to receive and analyze information. In this sense, the authorities could not have made a more anti-national decision.”