members deliver their judgment and spark a
storm of international criticism of free speech
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.
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."