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 July 25 , 2003 


Who Owns the Air?: Third ban on "Opposition" TV draws criticism


Commission members deliver their judgment and spark a storm of international criticism of free speech in Armenia.

A decision last week by the Radio and Television Commission of Armenia has drawn sharp criticism from proponents of free speech and from international agencies who say such action does little to secure Armenia' s place as a developing democracy.

For the third time in 15 months the Commission refused to grant television broadcast licenses to A1+ and Noyan Tapan companies. From 1997, the companies were powerful representatives of Armenia's "oppositional" media, meaning that their reports include information sometimes critical of the Government. Noyan Tapan stopped broadcasting in September 2001 (under government pressure some say). A1+ was denied a new license in April 2002.

A1+ was widely considered as "anti-Kocharyan". The Seats on the Commission are appointed by President Robert Kocharyan, and when A1+ was taken off the air, many saw the action as the first salvo by Kocharyan to manipulate the media leading up to last February's presidential election.

The Commission's first action sparked mass demonstrations and prompted A1+ president Mesrob Movsisyan to file a court action. The case was heard in lower court, then twice appealed, before being ruled against in favor of the Commission's decision. Since, Movsisyan has taken his plea to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where members of the Council of Europe may appeal decisions from their native countries. The case is pending.

Viewers on both sides of political debate agree that A1+ was a legitimate news source. The Commission, however, gave its broadcast rights to "Sharm", an advertising and entertainment agency with no news staff nor journalism experience. Sharm later was bought by a member of parliament.

In the intervening months, public outcry has quieted and even Movsisyan appears to have lost the will to challenge local authorities. He calls the action a "personal revenge".

"I find it useless applying to the court," he said. "The judges are like footmen and think that there is no third power in Armenia," Movsisyan says. "As long as the head of the country is the current one and the national committees staffed by him, A1+ is not going to have a channel."

Movsisyan says he is going to invite international experts to review the licensing process.

Such an invitation doesn't appear necessary, however. Reaction to last Saturday's decision was quick and damning.

From his office in Strasbourg Wednesday, Walter Schwimmer, Secretary General of the Council of Europe expressed "disappointment and concern" over the Commission's licensing decision.

Commission chairman Grigor Amalyan casts his vote.

Armenia cannot become "further integrated into Europe," the Secretary General said, until leadership in the country "accept the expression of a broader range of opinions."

From Vienna, the representative of press freedom for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Freimut Duve said the Commission's decision was an indication that "freedom of expression in Armenia continues to be restricted".

Head of the Radio and Television Commission, Grigor Amalyan, defended the decision on grounds that A1+ and Noyan Tapan's bids failed to meet one of four criteria and were rejected for "unsatisfactory technical and financial scopes".

Concerning the opinions of international observers, Amalyan suggested that if those agencies "are so concerned, they should help (the TV companies) learn proper financial and technical levels".

Following the release of Schwimmer's and parliamentarians' statements, though, Amalyan seemed to soften his position on the matter.

"If they think the Committee is not right, let the Parliament propose an offer to give a frequency to both TV companies without competition, but legally," Amalyan said.

Local reaction was also harsh.

Tigran Torosyan the Vice Speaker of Parliament and deputy head of the Republican political party stressed the professional superiority of "A1+" and criticized the work of the national committee.

"The committee is not going to be able to give explanations why A1+ was not given a frequency," Torosyan said. "This is a case of moral pressure. The public is displeased with the decision and if the majority of the authorities are displeased with this decision I think the members of the committee should think whom they are working for if not for the public."

 


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