The owner of Armenia’s leading independent television station controversially closed by the authorities said on Friday that it is well placed to win a new license and resume broadcasts by the end of this year.
Mesrop Movsesian made the upbeat forecast on the eighth anniversary of a decision by the presidentially appointed National Commission on Television and Radio (HRAH) to revoke his A1+ TV channel’s broadcasting frequency and give it to another broadcaster loyal to the Armenian government.
A1+, backed by local and international media watchdogs, denounced the decision as a government retribution for its political news coverage critical of then President Robert Kocharian. It has since tried unsuccessfully to win another frequency in over a dozen tenders administered by the HRAH.
The commission claims that those tenders were objective and truly competitive. Virtually all major TV companies that won them rarely air criticism of the authorities and the president of the republic in particular.
The Armenian authorities maintained the de facto ban even after the European Court of Human Rights fined them in June 2008 over the HRAH’s consistent rejection of A1+ applications for a new frequency. Later in 2008 the Armenian parliament approved government-drafted legal amendments that froze the holding of fresh frequency biddings until July 2010.
The government claimed that the measure is necessary for expediting Armenia's planned transition to mandatory digital broadcasting by 2012. But government critics believe its real purpose was to fend off renewed Western pressure for the reopening of A1+ that followed the disputed presidential election of February 2008.
Movsesian said on Friday that A1+ is already preparing for new tenders that are expected to be called in the second half of this year. He predicted that international pressure will force the HRAH to cave in.
“Reluctantly, they will give us [a frequency,]” Movsesian told RFE/RL's Armenian service. “They will be forced to. For our part, we will do everything to get impartial treatment by [HRAH chairman Grigor] Amalian’s team and I am sure that we will win in the end.”
But Mesrop Harutiunian, an expert with the non-governmental Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech, was more skeptical. “I presume that they will not hold any tenders,” he told RFE/RL's Armenian service. “They will say that they need to do more work on digitalization. God willing, I will be wrong.”
Separately, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and six Armenian civic groups on Friday urged the authorities to allow A1+ to return to air. “We call upon Armenian authorities to provide conditions that will guarantee the freedom of expression in Armenia,” they said in a joint statement. “Particularly, to provide impartiality and transparency of future tenders on broadcast licensing and thereby to ensure well-founded and justified decisions which will restore public trust.”
The authorities have pledged to make the HRAH more independent with one of the constitutional amendments enacted in late 2005. Under the resulting changes in an Armenian law on broadcasting, the president and the National Assembly shall each appoint four members of the regulatory body.
The parliament elected four new HRAH members last December. All of them are thought to be loyal to the country’s leadership.